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A well of care packages to troops is about to run dry

COLUMN ONE

Since Dorine Kenney lost her son in Iraq, she's sent thousands of boxes to service members overseas. This year's Christmas shipment was her biggest yet. But she's running short on funds.

December 21, 2010|By Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times
  • Dorine Kenney runs Jacob's Light Foundation , which sends thousands of care packages to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 40,000 to date.
Dorine Kenney runs Jacob's Light Foundation , which sends thousands… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Middletown, N.Y. — When Dorine Kenney learned that her son, Jacob, was going to Iraq, she looked for a way to take care of him even if she couldn't keep him safe.

She started sending a box of goodies every week — chocolate chip cookies, beef jerky, AA batteries and macaroni and cheese deluxe, his favorite.

The shopping and packing kept her from thinking about the worst. When the worst happened on Nov. 14, 2003, eight months after he parachuted into northern Iraq with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, she sat in her apartment wanting to die. She couldn't work. She couldn't eat. The only thing she could think to do was send another box.

So she packed one up for his unit and mailed it, 11 days after a roadside bomb killed Pfc. Jacob Fletcher, a paratrooper and her only child. It went out on what would have been his 29th birthday.

Every month since, Dorine Kenney has been sending care packages to Afghanistan and Iraq. This month she will send 285 13-inch cardboard cubes — a personal record. They go first to the troops who don't get mail from home, then to forward operating bases in the remote reaches of the war zones that have no access to amenities as basic as toothpaste. Really, though, she'll send a box to anyone in uniform who asks for one; more than 90% of requests for packages come from the troops themselves.

Now her funding is running out. Grant money from a Newport Beach philanthropist runs out next year and there is no new sponsor in the wings.

"It's time to put the sirens on and figure out how we're going to continue. Our troops have come to count on us," Dorine says from her two-bedroom rental where she lives and runs Jacob's Light Foundation, a military support group that grew from one mother's unbearable grief.

"I don't know how I survived after Jacob died," she said, "and I really didn't want to. I felt there would never be real joy in my life again."

Dorine says this early one Sunday morning while marching into a Wal-Mart here on Long Island to pick up two flats of snacks and toiletries she had ordered. It's freezing outside and Karen Carpenter is singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

"Whoa!" she says, stopped cold by a tower of Ritz crackers for $1.99 a box. "That's half what I've seen them for."

She's here so much, the clerks know her. The one on duty today happens to be named Doreen.

"Hi, Dorine. How are ya, hon?"

"Fine, Doreen, thanks. Those Ritz crackers are a bargain. I'll take 600."

"You got it, hon," the clerk says, tallying up the latest order bound for American troops at war: 264 cans of ravioli; 570 boxes of Cheese Nips; 275 tins of Danish butter cookies; 36 cans of Velveeta cheese; 207 twin packs of deodorant; 1,008 pouches of tuna; the 600 boxes of crackers.

Dorine pays the bill: $4,036.54.

How all of this came to be is sort of a blur. There was that morning she came back from the gym, her hair still wet from the shower. She was fixing some eggs when a woman in uniform knocked at the door. "Oh no," she thought, "my Jacob has been hurt." Then a voice in her head said, "They don't come to the door when they're hurt."

Dorine's mother dropped everything and flew in from Florida. All Dorine would eat were cookies. The laundromat was about the only place she found solace, watching the clothes tumble around. When she ran out of dirty laundry she washed the clean stuff.

One Sunday morning, as she sat staring at a dryer, a man asked if she was all right. His name was Mike Hoffmann. He drove a garbage truck for a living. She told him about losing Jacob in the war and the boxes she was sending overseas. He took her to Sam's Club and she found some good deals, which he loaded in the back of his Dodge Ram pickup.

That was six years ago and ever since Hoffman has been carting stuff for her in that truck. He had a couple of uncles who served in Korea and Vietnam, and this makes him feel good.

By 8:45 a.m. today the truck is parked in front of the Wal-Mart. Hoffman, 45, is hoisting cases of ravioli into the back. Dorine, 55, watches, arms crossed against the cold. Her only jewelry is Jacob's dog tags.

"The man has nev-ah told me no," she says — she has a rich Long Island accent. "His truck is so beat up from us. I always say if I hit the lottery, first thing I'm doing is buying Mike a truck."

Sending boxes is expensive — postage alone runs from $17 to $37 apiece depending on where in the war zone they are going. At first, Dorine, a holistic healer and teacher, paid for most of it out of her savings and donations made in Jacob's memory. But soon she was struggling to keep up with the demand. Soldiers started sending requests from overseas, mostly on behalf of their buddies:

"Ma'am, one of the guys here doesn't get any mail, and his job is to give out the mail. Could you send him something?"

She says that's what Jacob used to do: "Ma, Carson never gets mail. Could you send him a box?"

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