While Americans across the country tear into brightly wrapped gifts in the warmth and comfort of their home, somewhere in the heart of Afghanistan troops from the Florida Army National Guard’s 3/20th Special Forces Group will open parcels at Christmastime far from civilian family and friends. Among those boxes will be care packages from Operation CarePak 2, a partnership between Santa Fe College and the North Central Florida community to provide tokens of appreciation for deployed Florida servicemen.
December’s care packages will contain much more than hygiene items and snacks, though. Anne Marie Mattison, a former Santa Fe College employee and founder of Operation CarePak 1 and 2, hopes to collect knitted headwear, holiday movies, mini Christmas trees, and other holiday-inspired treats by Nov. 30 to send with the December shipment, so that soldiers can recreate that traditional holiday experience although they may be far from home.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have the warmth of a hearth and a big turkey waiting for them,” said Mattison. “The military does try to create as much of a celebration as they can, but the 3/20th are deployed to a remote and treacherous part of the world.”
The first Operation CarePak was inspired by the sacrifices of two Santa Fe (College) students from the 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment , Sgt. John Travis Rivero and Sgt. Jeffrey Mattison Wershow, Mattison’s son. Inspired by her son’s devotion to the service and to his comrades, in April 2010 Mattison and Operation CarePak volunteer started to send care packages to his company in Iraq with supplies and comfort items.
“On a personal level, it keeps the memory of my late son alive for me,” said Mattison. “It’s a way I can honor him, because I know this is something he would be doing too. They have a saying, ‘guard is family.’ They really have supported us as a family after my son Jeffrey died, and I believe he would have been just as engaged in efforts supporting his military brothers and sisters overseas.”
Mattison estimates a total of 150 boxes were sent in Operation Carepak 1. With the 2nd Battalion returning stateside, however, Mattison and Operation CarePak volunteers sent the last 12 boxes of Operation Carepak 1 in October and then turned their attention to how they could continue to help deployed troops.
Operation Carepak 2 was born when Mattison discovered that 3/20th Special Forces Group, which were then headquartered at Camp Blanding in Starke near Santa Fe’s Andrews Center, but were leaving for Afghanistan. Like its predecessor, Operation CarePak 2 was dedicated to two fallen soldiers, Sgt. Roy A. Wood, MD, and Sgt. Marco Miller.
October marked the first shipment for Operation CarePak 2, and Mattison hopes to raise enough donations to fill 75 to 100 boxes of supplies between now and the time the 3/20th leaves Afghanistan in the spring. Each of the four companies within the 3/20th will receive a minimum of three boxes per month, with a little something special this month for the holiday season.
“I remember how it was for my son when he was away for the holidays,” said Mattison. “The soldiers become a family unto themselves, and they support one another. The holidays can be a lonely time, so we hope this little piece of home we send will provide them with comfort knowing that they are missed and loved and remembered.”
Through a liaison to Operation CarePak 2, soldiers can specifically request items they want, and, for the Dec. 1 shipment, the troops have requested special holiday items, including Christmas decorations and strings of holiday lights, to be included in their care packages.
“It fills an emotional and maybe even a religious need, for those who celebrate Christmas,” sayid Mattison. “It’s one of the biggest holidays our country celebrates, and there are a lot of soldiers who are going to be away from their children and young soldiers who are going to be away from their family on Christmas for the first time. For a lot of reasons, it’s an important holiday for soldiers.”
While Operation CarePak 2 is collecting holiday treats for December, it accepts comfort food, supplies, and monetary donations to pay for postage, which at $200 per shipment is Operation CarePak 2’s greatest expense. In addition, on the first Wednesday of each month Operation CarePak 2 invites volunteers to gather at Santa Fe’s Northwest campus’ in Building D, room 115 for a packing party, to arrange all the items in boxes and fill out mailing labels.
“It started out as a small Santa Fe )project, but with the help of press releases, we received a lot of community response,” saidMattison. “It became a community partnership instead, of individuals, businesses and Santa Fe College, and that kind of response shows that people do want to support the soldiers.”
Contact Jennifer Mullis for more details at 352-395-5236 or go online to