When Daddy steps down that tunnel to the plane, his camouflaged figure about to fly off to Afghanistan or Iraq, left behind at the airport windows are an often overlooked team of true American heroes: the spouses and children of U.S. soldiers.
But now one couple, Michael and Monica Slee of Fontana, Calif., have determined these loved ones left behind should not be forgotten, but loved and supported and recognized for the sacrifices they make for freedom.
Through a growing program called Operation Patriot Care Package, or OPCP, the Slees have found a way to bless and honor military families.
OPCP gathers the spouses and children together for a free meal and a time of mutual support before assisting them to make care packages specifically for their loved ones. The packages are filled with blankets and necessities, children’s drawings and notes of love and gratitude.
Then, OPCP goes above and beyond. It delivers the packages to the moms and dads in action right around Christmas time, video tapes their lives overseas and their opening of the packages and returns with the footage to show their families back home.
The families’ response?
“It’s overwhelming,” Michael Slee told WND. “I could use all sort of adjectives, but ‘overwhelming’ sums it up.”
The OPCP website explains the program not only helps the families but, through the videos and partners involved in the operation, raises awareness of the trials these famlies face.
“With less than one percent of the nation serving in uniform, very few Americans have any firsthand knowledge or understanding what a military family sacrifices for all of us,” the site explains. “Ask anyone who has deployed overseas what’s the hardest part of a year-long combat deployment, and they will tell you, ‘Deploying is the easy part. The hard part of service is carried by our loved ones that are left at home to serve silently … alone, not knowing what is happening to us. That’s the hardest part of a deployment.'”
A touching video of OPCP in action last Christmas can be seen below:
Michael Slee with his camera in Baghdad
A former “military brat” himself, Slee told WND that he and his wife developed the idea out of first-hand experience with watching his dad step down that tunnel.
“I was too young to remember when my father was deployed in the Korean War,” Slee told WND, “but I was around when Vietnam was going on, so he was gone a lot as a transport pilot – but not six-month or year-long deployments like many of our military families wrestle with today. Still, I very vividly remember getting birthday gifts a couple weeks before my birthday because he was going to be gone. I can very much identify with what these kids go through. That’s why a big part of what I do and why it always focuses on the families.
“When one deploys, the whole family deploys,” he said. “They’re just on the other side of the coin.”
And while the care packages provide the impetus for getting the families involved, Slee said the lasting benefits are often seen in giving lonely and grieving moms and kids a way to connect with one another.
“We put together a dinner – that way moms don’t have to feed the kids – and we try to remove as much pressure as possible. We try to give them a couple of hours to come together, prior to the actual event where they start packing the boxes,” Slee explained. “The idea is to be together with like-minded people, because when the guys deploy, [the soldiers] don’t have time to ‘Woe is me, I’m away from my family.’ But these wives, they’re by themselves. And when the sun goes down and they’re in that house by themselves with those kids, there’s no one else to talk to. That’s the hard part. So, bringing them together is medicinal in a lot of ways.”
The follow-up video from last Christmas’ OPCP, showing soldiers opening the gifts packed in the first video above, can be seen below:
This Christmas will be the third time OPCP has gathered military families together and shipped their gifts to loved ones. But Michael Slee told WND he hopes to expand the program, not only to reach more military families, but also to take packages over throughout the year, not just during the holidays.
“Too often, people only remember these servicemen, and not even their families, during the holidays. There are hundreds of nonprofits and churches that send thousands of care packages during the holidays, usually Thanksgiving weekend,” Slee said. “My whole effort is to raise awareness of what a family goes through year round. It’s not just during the holidays. Hopefully, with some more awareness and funding, I can do this every couple of months or at least on Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July – reaching out to different units, different families, different walks of life.”
You can learn more about Operation Patriot Care Package, watch more OPCP videos and donate to the Slees’ efforts at PatriotCarePackage.com.