OAKLAND — Aaron Negherbon remembers the plaintive email he received from a Marine sergeant in Afghanistan.
“Aaron, I don’t know if you can do this,” it read. “Our supply truck was blown up and all the gear from my nine medics was destroyed.”
The sergeant was requesting surgical kits, gauze, equipment for cutting into tracheas and “all the etc.”
Negherbon, 38, founder and president of TroopsDirect, a nonprofit organization, had the supplies gathered, shipped and in the hands of front-line troops within 10 days.
“That’s what we do,” Negherbon said as he walked through his group’s flag-draped warehouse at the back of a defunct auto dealership.
Numerous groups, including several in Orange County with an affinity for Camp Pendleton, send troops goodie boxes filled with snack food, toilet paper, crackers, chewing tobacco, magazines and more.
TroopsDirect is different. Yes, it sends sun block, bug spray, toothbrushes, energy bars, packages of drink powder and other things meant to make deployment to a war zone less torturous.
But the group’s main goal is to send items of a more critical nature, including stretchers, stethoscopes, gauze, medical ointments, communication gear, protective eyewear, tourniquets and special chalk to warn troops about the threat of buried roadside bombs.
TroopsDirect has sent more than 10 tons of supplies to Afghanistan for Marine infantry battalions from Camp Pendleton, the Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms and Camp Lejeune, N.C., and for an Army supply unit from Ft. Drum, N.Y.
The Marines, Negherbon found, are particularly needy, given the Marine Corps’ “first to fight” culture of doing more with less. “The Marines go without a lot of things compared to an Army unit,” he said.
Department of Defense rules require military units to keep nonprofit organizations at arm’s length, lest they appear to endorse the groups. But that has not kept Marine officers and “grunts” on the front line from expressing their appreciation to TroopsDirect.
“I’m always a bit uneasy when we go outside the established military supply system,” said Col. Willy Buhl, former commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, which has seen some of the toughest fighting of the 10-year war in Afghanistan.
But TroopsDirect, Buhl said, has gotten crucial supplies to the troops “much faster than we could otherwise hope.”
As for Negherbon, Buhl said, “he is just a great man, a very generous and committed patriot who has no other agenda than to help our Marines forward deployed.”
Lt. Col. William Vivian, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, said that after arriving in Afghanistan last fall, his troops needed pressure washers to clean out Humvees and showers.
“That would have been a significant contracting effort for us to do on our own,” Vivian said this month. “They’d probably be arriving about now. TroopsDirect did it overnight; they’re amazing.”
Negherbon founded TroopsDirect two years ago after talking to a longtime friend, a Marine captain, about things that his troops needed. Negherbon put aside his job with a mortgage brokerage and now runs TroopsDirect from a small office in San Ramon, east of Oakland.
Requests come via Skype, satellite phone, Facebook and email. Negherbon travels to Southern California to meet with commanders before they deploy to better anticipate their needs when they reach Helmand province, long a Taliban stronghold.
Among the most commonly requested items are combat stretchers, made of heavy-duty nylon mesh.
“You have a son or nephew, and he gets hit, and they don’t have one of these available….” Negherbon said, not needing to finish his sentence.
Another common request is for pressure washers. “They use them to wash the blood and guts out of vehicles,” he said.
The group, which relies on donations, raised $350,000 from July 1, 2010, to June 20, 2011, according to the most recent IRS documents on file.
But of late, contributions have decreased, probably because combat activity is winding down and the public is turning its philanthropic attention elsewhere.
“We’re getting about 75 cents for every dollar we used to get,” Negherbon said.
On a recent morning, Negherbon received an email asking for toothbrushes, gun-cleaning kits, eye protection, hand sanitizer and two digital watches.
“Two of my guys, 1 Marine and 1 corpsman, hit an IED,” or improvised explosive device, said the email, "..shrapnel wounds etc..anyway they both had their watches cut off.”
TroopsDirect had the request filled and shipped within a frantic 96 hours.
“We operate in real time,” Negherbon said.
La Ganga reported from Oakland, Perry from San Diego.