When deployed overseas, military service members can end up with a lot of downtime on their hands. Many struggle to fill the idle time with activities that contribute to their mental and physical well-being and even further their career aspirations. There is a growing concern about treating service members’ mental health issues when they return from deployment, but how do we contribute to improving or maintaining their mental health while they’re deployed overseas?
For some troops, it can be as simple as receiving something to read. Retired librarian Pat Powell learned this valuable lesson more than a decade ago when a colleague asked about collecting used paperbacks for her son. Powell’s friend asked because her deployed son said they were bored and needed entertainment. The paperbacks, according to Powell, would fit in the pockets of the soldiers’ fatigues.
Powell wrote about her experience for the Missourian in March, detailing the evolution of one act of kindness into a personal mission. According to Powell, her friend’s son returned from service, and his parents no longer sent books. Powell, however, was inspired. She began mailing books to three or four soldiers at a time. When she retired, she looked to the members of her educational honor society, Delta Kappa Gamma, to take the project on as its own. “I cannot give a total number of books that have been mailed since this project started, but …[i]n 2014, I mailed 831 books, 12 books on CD and 158 magazines in 50 boxes. Then, in 2015, 736 books, 8 books on CD, and 23 magazines were mailed in 45 boxes. Every time I mail a box, I feel so grateful that I can do something to help the troops who are sacrificing so much for all of us.”
Powell is not alone in her efforts to collect used books from libraries, schools, and even her community. Operation Paperback began in 1999, sending books to troops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Like Powell’s efforts, Operation Paperback began when Air Force Sergeant Major Rick Honeywell found himself without any recreational activities, like books or movies. He asked his wife to send some supplies, and she and other Air Force spouses responded with a huge care package.
Honeywell’s father-in-law added his used paperbacks to the equation, and Operation Paperback was born. Seventeen years later, individuals, families, and community groups can now donate to the Operation Paperback with monetary contributions or books. Because groups can register to donate specific genres, this is a great way for libraries to offload their retiring collections.
Send Video Games
Some troops aren’t readers and may be inclined to use second-hand paperbacks for target practice rather than for education. Stephen Machuga, co-founder of Stack-Up.org, was one such soldier. His epiphany came when using romance novels on a firing range: people back home wanted to help, but soldiers want more than just books.
He and his cofounder, Nate Serefine, work with contributors to supply video game boxes to troops stationed overseas as well as veterans suffering from PTSD. According to Stack-Up’s website, the latter part of its mission is Serefine’s personal reason for cofounding the organization.
Video game therapy has grown as an innovative rehabilitation technique, and Machuga and Serefine recognize that from their own experiences. Stack-Up takes one-time donations or recurring donations of recently-used video games, console, and other gaming accessories. As libraries expand their video game libraries, the need to refresh them will also give them the opportunity to donate to a program like Stack-Up.
For libraries looking to increase literacy, join a letter-writing campaign and donate letters to troops. Operation Gratitude offers volunteers and donors the chance to send care packages, recycled cellphones, and letters.
Operation Gratitude even offers information for educators on starting letter-writing campaigns. If your library has a writing group or a teen literacy program, this a perfect chance to take a break and offer something that will contribute to the mental health of service members.
There are many other ways for libraries to get involved in donating time and resources for military personnel. Find the one that works for you.
 Pat Powell, “FROM READERS: Retired librarian uses love for books to help troops abroad,” Missourian, March 28, 2016.