10/26/09 — Sending help to those caught in the fighting

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Sending help to those caught in the fighting

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 26, 2009 1:46 PM

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Casey Hughes, left, Patricia Nadead, Dale Wood and Allison Mandas pack buckets with bags of rice for airmen overseas Saturday at the MERCI center in Rosewood.

Grace Doherty has never been to Afghanistan.

She is only 12 years old.

But her father, Patrick, is the vice commander of a fighter wing that has seen the country from the cockpits of F-15E Strike Eagles.

So that little girl was alongside him and more than 100 others from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base who showed up at the MERCI Center Saturday morning to pack food and clothing into boxes that will soon be bound for people thousands of miles away who might otherwise go without.

"It feels good to help other people," Grace said, as she helped her parents sort some of the thousands of pounds of winter garments piled inside a Wayne County warehouse.

Members of the 4th Fighter Wing and their families came together with the Pine Forest United Methodist Church congregation this weekend to package aid for an impoverished country some just returned home from.

4th Commander Col. Mark Kelly wasn't surprised to see so many from Seymour Johnson on hand.

"It's not a coincidence. They know the investment well," he said. "And they know we're not going to win over the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan by dropping bombs on them. We're going to get there by dropping boxes of food ... on them."

Saturday was the second time the base and Pine Forest UMC have come together at the MERCI Center.

But earlier this year, soy- and rice-based meals were the only items packaged and sent overseas.

"That food wound up serving two different refugee camps right outside of Kabul," the Rev. Billy Olsen said. "Now, these clothes and this food are going to, most likely, serve that same refugee population."

The church got involved with the project after Olsen and former 4th Fighter Wing Chaplain Lt. Col. Scott Ofsdahl identified a need in Afghanistan.

The effort has been identified as a "mission," but Olsen said the fact that the government prohibits sending religious material has not slowed it.

"Our hope is the food and clothing will send a message to the population of Afghanistan that the United States is not giving up on them," he said. "And we hope that one day, there will be a greater degree of personal and religious freedom there. ... But until that day comes, we don't want them to be hungry, and we don't want them to get cold in the wintertime."

Kelly has seen firsthand just what aid means to the Afghan people.

During his last stint at Bagram Airfield, his father mailed soccer balls to him to give to the children living outside the wire.

"We just mentally can't wrap our minds around how little they have. 'Nothing' is the easiest way to describe it," he said. "So when they get something, no matter what it is, they go from nothing to everything -- even if just for an hour or a day."

Once the packaging is complete, the aid will be transported to Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., where it will be stored until space becomes available on aircraft bound for Afghanistan.

When it finally arrives in country, it will be dispersed by Trust in Education, an American civilian non-profit currently operating there.