It started with the story in the Los Angeles Times on April 27, 2020, page B3, headlined “Valuable data in aircraft carrier outbreak.” We – the Scouts and Parents of BSA Troop 342 – all read it, how the personnel of the USS Theodore Roosevelt were stuck on their ship, docked in Guam, because of the coronavirus. We felt some sympathy, experiencing our own frustrations, stuck in our homes because of the need to self-isolate. We wanted to help. After all, it’s the third point of the Scout Law: A Scout is Helpful.
Our Scoutmaster, Ken Borgerding, a former US Navy SEAL, suggested that our Scouts could write letters of encouragement. He shared his own experiences, being deployed overseas, stuck on a ship, and how a “Dear Pen Pal” letter from a total stranger brightened up his day. My own parents came together ultimately due to a homework assignment in my Japanese mother’s English language class. The students had to write “Dear Pen Pal” letters, which were received by the battalion stationed at Yokosuka, Japan, which included my American father on his first tour of duty. In that same spirit, we proposed the idea to the Scouts, who were all in favor of doing it.
However, things have changed since Scoutmaster Borgerding was a Navy man. In those days, you could send a letter “To Any Sailor” addressed to a particular ship or Navy Base, and during mail call, an announcement would be made seeking volunteers to reply to any “Dear Pen Pal” letters. But in our post-9/11 world, you can’t do that anymore. So I did a little research, and we opted to go Operation Gratitude.
Operation Gratitude encourages schools and other youth groups to write letters to deployed troops, veterans, hospitalized military personnel or their caregivers, and now also first responders and medical personnel. They match the letter written with donations of goods, put everything in a care package, and send it on to the desired recipient. They provided clear guidelines, both to the parents in the Troop Committee and to our Scouts, on how to write a letter, on what sort of things you can say, and what sort of things you shouldn’t say in a first-contact letter.
Operation Gratitude gave practical advice, like if you want your letter to go to a soldier overseas, write it to “Dear Deployed Troops” and if you’re under 18, only use your first name and a third-party address like your school (if the letter writing is a classroom assignment) or, in our case, the church where our Scout Troop met before state-wide self-quarantine went into effect.
Operation Gratitude could not promise that any of our letters would be received by anyone on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, but they pointed out that a lot of our military personnel, not just those on the Roosevelt, are being affected by the current pandemic and would welcome a friendly letter from home.
So in mid-May, the Scouts were informed that we would be writing “Dear Deployed Troops” letters during our next Troop Meeting on Zoom, and they were given instructions on how to write these letters, in case anyone wanted to get a head start over the weekend. Then on Monday, during the Troop Meeting, we all sat down to write our letters together.
At the end of the meeting, Assistant Scoutmaster Greg Thompson drove to Oneonta Congregational Church — where our Troop normally meets — popped open his trunk, and instructed our Scouts ( from six feet away ) to drop their letters in a paper grocery bag in the trunk. For those Scouts who needed additional time to work on their letters, he returned that Wednesday evening. We gave Thursday as one last day anyone could drop off a letter into our mailbox and then on Friday, I put all the letters into a Priority Mail envelope and mail them to Operation Gratitude, as per their instructions. Troop Committee Chairman Dean Serwin was present to take photos of the letter collection.
In conclusion, even though everyone needing to self-isolate in response to this coronavirus pandemic has put a crimp into our style as Boy Scouts (we had to cancel three camping trips already!), we all learned that with a little persistence and creativity, a Scout can still be Helpful.