Troop adoption trying for Scouts
The Evening Sun

A group of Junior Girl Scouts sit around a wide square table, secluded in a room behind the stage at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Hanover. The girls giggle and smile, the photographs of two Marines watching over them from the bulletin board.

Around the photos someone has written "Our Heroes," and the 11 Scouts of Troop 717 see the men as just that.

The troop "adopted" four Marines and two Army soldiers since 2005 as part of a campaign to send a little joy to the deployed men. Two of the Marines were killed in Iraq soon after the girls adopted them, but losing two of their heroes has not deterred the girls from helping the military. The girls have continued to write letters, make gifts and seek out donations to send Girl Scout cookies to men and women overseas.

"It makes them feel like somebody actually appreciates what they're doing for our country," said Girl Scout Robin Crabill.

The Scouts connected to the two Marines through cousins of their troop leader, Tina Stevens. The men, Cpl. Joshua D. Snyder and Lance Cpl. Norman W. Anderson III, attended high school with Stevens' cousins in Parkville, Md.

The girls had just written their first set of letters to the soldiers in 2005 when Stevens learned Anderson had died. She worried how to share the news with the girls, she said, as well as how the girls' parents would react. Stevens wrote to a former Marine she knew and asked for advice.

"She says, 'You have to be honest with them,'" Stevens said. "And she says, 'You know you have to tell them that this is (the Marines') job. This is a risk that they take knowing they're taking this risk.'"

Stevens caught parents as they dropped off their daughters for the next Scout meeting and let them know what had happened before she told her Scouts. The girls were sad and shocked, Stevens said, and asked questions about how and when the Marine had died. She tried not to go into too much detail with the girls, she said, allowing parents to decide how much information to divulge. And the girls remained upbeat, asking if they could hang Anderson's picture on their wall.

"They were somebody we cared about, so it was like a loss of a family member or something," said Girl Scout Laura Kumasaka.

The girls turned their attention to filling Christmas stockings to send to the troops. But when Stevens came home from filling the stockings with the girls, she found a tearful message from her cousin on her answering machine. Snyder had just died.

"When I found out, that was horrible," said Stevens' daughter, Girl Scout Leah Stevens. "My cousins were (the Marines') best friends, and it just made me feel even worse. It made most of us feel bad that that happened."

The Scout troop took a break from meetings for a while after Snyder died but were not disheartened, Tina Stevens said. After speaking to Snyder's mother, she learned of two of Snyder's friends who were also deployed. The Scout troop then sent gifts and letters to the friends, and the men responded to them. One soldier even asked for a picture of the girls so he could see their faces and make a connection, Tina Stevens said.

"It actually gave them something to think about while they were over there," Kumasaka said. "It's not really common to hear something. If you write to somebody, it might not get back because they're busy."

Hearing back from the troops makes the Scouts feel special, said Girl Scout Emily Hankewycz.

"It makes us feel like they're actually eating (the cookies) and using their stuff," she said.

Despite the new connections, the Scouts did not forget about their adoptive troops who were killed. They decorated shirts and carried flags in the 2006 Hanover Memorial Day parade in honor of the men. A yellow ribbon with Anderson and Snyder's names, rank and other information was tied to the each flag.

The girls felt an immense amount of pride in the men, Tina Stevens said.

"They have pure hearts," she said. "Girl Scouting is already a very patriotic, pride-in-country, pride-in-family, faith-in-God (organization), so a lot of it comes from that."

Tina Stevens' cousins also visited the Scouts and brought with them letters and photographs of the soldiers the girls had adopted. She called it "a quiet night."

"You could tell that they were really sad," said Girl Scout Tara Johnson. "The one girl started to cry. I was about ready to cry with them. I was really sad."

Although the men did not have a chance before they died to write to the Scouts, they mentioned the girls in letters to their friends.

"The girls were able to read those letters then, so that made them feel a little bit better," Tina Stevens said.

Stevens had since become involved with the group Marine Comfort Quilts, and the girls made squares for quilts in honor of the troops they lost. Anderson's widow and Snyder's mother then received the quilts, which each contained a square made by the girls.

"That was one of the ways they could show support and kind of work through their feelings a little bit," she said.

Two of the troops to whom the girls wrote have since returned to the United States, but the girls have already found another to help out. When Pennsylvania National Guard soldier Jeff Crostley returned to Hanover for leave in January, he found a welcome-home banner the girls decorated and hung on his house.

"If we write to them or do anything for them, it must make them feel all happy and warm in their heart," Leah Stevens said. "And it makes me feel good that they're good."

Having a connection to the military also provides the girls with role models, including female soldiers for whom the Scouts filled stockings to send overseas.

"It makes us feel strong," Hankewycz said. "It makes us feel like everything's going to be OK because they're taking care of it for us."

Knowing the soldiers are serving overseas makes the girls feel safe, Leah Stevens said.

And the girls' involvement with the military has moved beyond letters and Christmas presents. The troop baked cookies for mothers of deployed soldiers at Christmas time and donated leftover cookies to a veterans hospital in Lebanon.

After collecting donations from family and friends last year to send boxes of Girl Scout cookies to troops overseas, the Scouts have expanded their efforts this year. Businesses and private donors have given money, and the Scouts will set up a table for donations at the North Hanover Mall later this month.

A mother in the Hanover chapter of Blue Star Mothers helped line up a military transport for the cookies, so the troop will not have to pay out of its own pocket to mail the donations. The donated cookies will be sent from Fort Meade in Maryland to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each box will contain a note saying who donated it as well as a message from one of the Scouts.

"We value them going so far from home and not being around family, not having Christmas," Tina Stevens said. "The girls identify with wanting to bring a little bit of that to them."

Contact Caitlin Heaney at cheaney@eveningsun.com.

Ellie