by Natalie Salat
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES
The sight of an empty donation box at the Legion made Doug Willoughby do it. When the retired businessman and member of Norwood, Ont., Branch, noticed that the box—put there last November by a lady from the nearby seniors home seeking donations for local troops—remained bare, “I just went ballistic,” recalled Willoughby. “It was a flimsy box, and the message on it wasn’t quite clear, but the box sat there and sat there and nobody was putting anything in it.” After a word with President Randy Webb, “finally we got that box filled big time.”
That was merely the beginning. Then came the idea to ship banners
covered in greetings to the missions in Bosnia and Afghanistan in time for Christmas. Finally, Willoughby brought out the big guns: Operation Support Our Troops. On Canada Day, as a result of the former soldier’s initiative and the combined efforts of Norwood Branch and the Department of National Defence, the 3,124 Canadian Forces members who were serving in international theatres of operation received a package heaving with goodies, including frisbees, books, chewing gum, decks of cards, health supplies, cookies and a 24-pack of granola bars.
Originally, Willoughby had wanted to put something together for Christmas, recalled Shirley Penny, deployed operations amenity coordinator for the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency. “But there was no way I would be able to send boxes at that (busy) time. I proposed that they send banners.”
“So we went ahead and got two six-by-five-foot banners,” said Willoughby, “and invited all the dignitaries and people in the community to sign them.” One was shipped to Afghanistan, the other to Bosnia. “They’re hanging in the (Bosnia) mess and in the general store in Afghanistan.”
“The troops loved them,” observed Penny. “They took pictures standing beside them and sent them back to the Legion. But (that project) just didn’t seem to fill Doug’s need. He phoned and said, ‘I have to do something more.’” Penny suggested that Willoughby and the branch come up with some proposals.
In January 2004, Willoughby embarked on the half-year-long project, which would involve countless phone calls to individuals and companies, extensive logistical co-ordination with Penny, and fundraising activities such as a Valentine’s dance and a polar dip by two Norwood members. More than 40 Legion and community members volunteered to get the packages together. “It was a big undertaking, you bet.”
Willoughby spent five to six hours a day on the project, seeking donations from companies large and small. His decades of experience in sales came in handy. He amassed 22 different items for each package. “I phoned the National Grocers Association asking for 3,000 granola bars. They shipped 3,000 boxes of 24.” The association also sent 90 cans of coffee and nearly 400 bags of cookies. There was also deodorant from Avon, socks from Mark’s Work Warehouse, flying discs from Harco, books from Chapters, cards from Casino Rama and cookies from World’s Finest Chocolate. Kimberly-Clark provided Kleenex and Kotex. Sears donated pens and Wrigley’s gum. When flag manufacturer Globecraft saw the Legion letterhead on Willoughby’s fax, the company stepped up with 1,200 flags, despite having had a rough year. Local packaging company Coyle Box Co. of Peterborough provided all the necessary boxes. Trucking company Cathcart made sure that the goods would get to Canadian Forces Base Trenton on skids.
“Everything was donated,” pointed out Willoughby. “It didn’t cost the Legion a dime.” While there were some disappointments along the way, where larger corporations could not lend a hand, for the most part, “our community was really behind us.” Besides doing press coverage, including a live radio interview, Willoughby had the full backing of Branch President Webb. “Randy was 110 per cent behind me all the way.”
The scope of the project could be overwhelming. There was so much material that the operation had to relocate from the upper hall of the Legion to the Norwood Fair Grounds, which donated use of a barn for storage and packing. Meanwhile, Penny helped steer things with advice on how to wrap, palletize and shrink-wrap the packages. “The logistics of this is hard when you don’t know how to do it, but once I explained all these things, Doug just went back and did it.” When it came time to put everything together for shipment on Canadian Forces Hercules planes, Penny was very impressed with the community effort, particularly that of a couple of W W II veterans who were “in there up to their elbows.”
The branch also took to heart Penny’s advice to include a letter with each of the 3,124 packages, so that CF members would know who did this and why. Part of it reads: “We in Branch 300 fully appreciate our Canadian soldiers as our representatives abroad. This is no longer just the typical peacetime army… (but) an army that is always training to fight a major future conflict. We understand that long absences must put a strain on family relationships and how this way of life can sometimes be ‘not much of a life’ at all.” The branch then invites the CF members to visit or send in letters detailing their experiences and their expectations of the civilian population.
And respond they did, with photographs, letters and a visit to Norwood Branch from WO Paul Clark, who was still serving in Bosnia. “He said (the soldiers) didn’t have a clue about the project,” recalled Willoughby. “They were totally surprised.” The packages reached 882 soldiers in Bosnia and 2,200 in Afghanistan for July 1.
Lt.-Col. John Frappier, commanding Operation Palladium in Bosnia, also sent a letter to Norwood Branch. About his staff, he wrote: “They perform their duties diligently and professionally despite sometimes feeling a lack of interest in their accomplishments from their fellow citizens in Canada. However, this year on Canada Day, the wind has turned, and it was entirely down to you, the members and volunteers of Norwood Branch. By receiving your care packages, our soldiers have been touched in a way that is impossible to quantify.”
When Willoughby began Operation Support Our Troops, he spoke to a few local servicemen who told him that too many of their comrades were not getting the family support they needed. “It was those ones that I wanted to hit, and I did. The letters we’re getting back certainly signify that.” Willoughby heard from family members, too. “A few days after Canada Day I got a phone call from a father whose son is a lieutenant in Afghanistan. It hit me bigtime,” said Willoughby, voice breaking with emotion. These contacts have made it all worthwhile. “In our Legion we’re there to support our veterans by all means, but we have fellows out there that are future veterans, future Legionnaires. To me it was a no-brainer to take on a project such as this.”