Thoughts from Dr. Joe: The gray canvas mailbag

Recently I received a note from Marianne Freeze, the chair of the retired service volunteers of the Assistance League of Flintridge. Marianne mentioned that the ladies had written letters to the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and asked if I could get them to the troops.

I wonder if the Assistance League members realize the far-reaching effects of their benevolence. A letter or a package from home is alchemy to soldiers in the field. You don't forget something like that.

I remember long ago the faces of my Marines as they waited for letters and packages from the gray canvas mailbag.

Back then, the troops would listen for the sound of incoming choppers, the rotors of which made a distinct sound. They didn't have the high-pitched whine of an outgoing, but instead a dull whop, whop, whop accentuated by a dense jungle canopy. The Marines could tell the difference between an incoming and an outgoing. When the first faint sounds were heard, they'd look up in anticipation.

The chopper brought connection. The Marines would unload the necessities: water, rations, bullets and bandages. But the real treasure was the gray canvas mailbag. The door gunner would pitch the bag to the Marines, pick up the trash, and dust off. One never stared at an outgoing chopper; they brought only isolation.

A letter from home is the tonic for the sum of all fears. What the Marines feared most was the struggle of being forgotten.

Sergeant Lihue would bark, "Mail call," and read the names of the recipients, simultaneously tossing letters and package to eager hands. I'd watch the eyes of my Marines. Some eyes glimmered, anticipating a letter from home. Others were forlorn because they knew there'd be none.

Those never receiving mail would still gather for this ritual. There was always hope.

After mail call, the Marines receiving nothing would retreat to the corners of the perimeter and silently wait till the pageantry subsided. It's never the battle that hardens the hearts of the combat soldier, it's the isolation.

As a community, we can make sure that our soldiers are not forgotten. I need your help to get it done.

For seven years, La Cañada has sent thousands of Girl Scout cookies to the troops via Operation Gratitude. Currently, there are 50,000 Girl Scouts selling cookies. Buy Girl Scout cookies and bring them to the Valley Sun's office at 727 Foothill Blvd. I'll see to it that your cookies get to the troops.

Also, follow the lead of Marianne and the Assistance League. Write letters and bring them to the Sun. Operation Gratitude will deliver them.

If you can't be there with our soldiers, this is the next best thing that you can do. You'll never realize the impact that a box of Girl Scout cookies or a letter will have on them.

Time has not eroded certain memories of Vietnam. I recall many desperate eyes, few of which were caused by battle. The gradual erosion of the soul originates by a pronounced disconnect. That's both a painful and an emotional death. What haunts me is that an occasional letter could have prevented this.

After mail call, I'd tend to the boys who'd received no mail. But all I could muster was a pat on the back. Sergeant Lihue would bring all back to task, "Let's get back to the war!" he'd shout. The letters would be put away, but would be read a 1,000 times more.

We can affect the course of events. Bring cookies and letters to the Valley Sun and in a few weeks, some sergeant will be pulling the cookies and letters that you sent from a gray canvas mailbag and tossing them to eager hands.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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