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thedrifter
12-14-08, 07:52 AM
December 14, 2008
Our Towns
Donations Dwindle as War Becomes an Old Story to Many
By PETER APPLEBOME

NEW WINDSOR, N.Y.

The other day, Lucy Mercado got an e-mail message from a woman she didn’t know. She wanted to find out if Mrs. Mercado could help ship a sliver of Christmas to her husband, a noncommissioned Army officer stationed near Baghdad on his fourth tour of duty.

Given the date on the calendar, the message noted, the realization was sinking in that the officer and his men would not be home for the holidays and that their next redeployment back home was months away.

And so, it went on to say, “if you know of anyone who could buy some cheap Christmas candy, put it in a box and send it to my husband so he can hand out to his soldiers, I know this would perk morale up a lot.”

It’s not likely that Mrs. Mercado will be able to help much. She’s just a 47-year-old mother of two — one in the Marines — who long ago, when the war in Iraq was young, took it upon herself to be a one-woman supply depot for soldiers far away.

But since she has become this column’s seasonal barometer of the war and its discontents, an anxious voice that pops up every December shouting, “Don’t forget! Don’t forget! Don’t forget!,” we revisit one woman for whom the war is as real today as it was when it began.

Mrs. Mercado began her campaign in August 2004, when she began supplying Red Bull energy drinks to the troops serving under her son, Sgt. Luis Mercado Jr. Then she added energy bars. And so it went.

She distributed fliers all over town, and got donations from neighbors, a fire department women’s auxiliary, a Cub Scout troop and a motorcycle club, among others. There was local publicity, and donors ranged from a kid who wanted to be a marine and sent $5 to a family that sent $1,000. Soon it was a tax-exempt organization, Support Our Heroes, with a Web site,

supportourheroes.net.

For Christmas in 2004, Mrs. Mercado put together gift packages for 311 marines, with each receiving a green military T-shirt, toothpaste, a toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, candy canes and candy neatly packed in a snowman holiday bag. That December, her garage was full of anything that could be sent overseas: cartons of Slim Jims and Ritz crackers, Colgate toothpaste and Tampax, Yoo-hoos, Milk Duds and Famous Amos cookies — so much that she and her husband had to keep their two cars outside.

In 2005, her son was back in the States, a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C. But she had made a promise to herself that as long as the war continued, she would send supplies to other women’s children, so the routine and the Christmas packages continued.

It has never stopped, even as the war has become like a faint distant thunder, unless, of course, it’s your kid, spouse, mother or father out in the rain. Now one of the platoons she supplies includes her son’s fiancée, Desiree Ornelaz, who smiles radiantly on the Web site in her Marine flak jacket.

Mrs. Mercado gets a little help. A former Marine named John Hamernik has bought hundreds of hand warmers — it gets cold there in the winter. A car auction company, Manheim New York in Newburgh, N.Y., has put out donation boxes instead of holding a bake sale, as in the past. But donations are about half what they used to be. And other than what she can beg and cajole, which she does with a grim urgency, there’s not much. She put a donation box in a local church. No one donated anything. She has spent $1,000 out of her own pocket.

The war, or the two of them, after all, are old, old stories. And, of course, there’s the economy. In an endless universe of hurt, there are just too many others in line. So this year the garage is just about empty — some cookies and granola bars donated by the Nabisco plant in Newburgh, some bottled water and energy drinks lined up against one wall. Plenty of room for those two cars.

So sometimes she understands why it’s so hard and sometimes she doesn’t.

“You see on television those people shopping, shopping, so much shopping they trample someone to death,” she said. “I know times are hard, but if they all gave just a dollar to me, we’d be fine.”

After all, for military families, that thunder, even amid the collapsing economy, isn’t so distant. She’s supporting two platoons with about 135 soldiers altogether. Two local mothers with sons overseas have asked her to support their platoons, so she’ll try to help them, too.

The casualties continue — one this year was Mohsin Naqvi, 26, an Army lieutenant from down the road in Newburgh, who died in Afghanistan. Mrs. Mercado’s son is back overseas, though she’s not sure exactly where.

It has occurred to her many times that the idea of doing this until the last solider is home may have been a promise she can’t keep, and that one of these years there’s likely to be a Christmas when the soldiers are still there but she has thrown in the towel. It’s hard to be sure if she sounds more resigned or more determined when she says this isn’t that Christmas.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

Ellie