Dear Hero Program sends 'little piece of home' to deployed troops

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly e-newsletter. 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jesse Brandenburg figured she’d see at least one smiling face after she drove eight hours to Maine to greet her boyfriend (now husband) after he returned from a deployment in Afghanistan. But what happened next surprised her.

Jesse continually kept in touch with Paul while he was stationed overseas and in California in 2010; the two got married this summer and both will graduate from Penn State in May, Paul with a degree in history and Jesse with one in biology.  

While Paul was deployed, Jesse had also regularly been sending him care packages, which included socks, deodorant, snacks and cookies, among other items.

In a word, “everything,” Paul said.

Jesse even sent something called cake-in-a-jar. She was worried the recipe wouldn’t come out right, but Paul said they were great. He also received about 200 letters of support from his nephew’s fourth-grade class. Thanks to Jesse and others back home, mail day was typically an exciting time for Paul.

Now, back to Maine.

Paul definitely was happy to see Jesse when he stepped off the plane at the Bangor International Airport. So were the other troops stationed with Paul, and they greeted Jesse just as enthusiastically, thanking her for her support.

When Jesse received this unexpected response at the airport, she didn’t know how to respond. The other troops were strangers, people she hadn’t ever met before, and they were thanking her for everything she’d been doing for them.

“At that point, I hadn't yet been out to California to visit Paul and only knew of his buddies from what he had told me via phone or letters,” Jesse said. “Maine was the first chance I had to meet them.”

It didn’t make sense, at least not until Paul clued her in. It turned out that the entire time Jesse was sending Paul packages, he was in turn sharing the goodies with the troops, even the cakes-in-a-jar (Jesse had sent four). So by the time everyone landed back in the United States, they were eager to meet this girl who’d been their baker-pen pal-supply outfitter the entire time.

"All of my buddies were thanking her, and she was kind of confused,” Paul said. “I explained to her that these guys weren't getting anything. And what I had from you, I was sharing with them, and they loved it. She felt really moved by that.”

Jesse and Paul weren’t reunited for long. They had only an hour together before Paul boarded a flight to California, where he was stationed for a month.

Still, Jesse called that time one of the best hours of her life, and completely worth the 16-hour round-trip. She was so excited, she couldn’t sleep that night and went to the hotel gym at 2 a.m. because she didn’t know what else to do.

DHP (airport)

Jesse drove 16 hours round-trip to greet Paul when he returned from his overseas deployment. "It was really an emotional overload," Jesse said, especially since they had only one hour together before Paul had to board a flight to California. 

Image: Jesse Brandenburg

“It was really an emotional overload,” Jesse said. “I was beyond overjoyed that he was going to be back on United States soil, and safe, again. I was so excited to finally be able to see him and kiss him and have him, physically, in front of me again.

“But I also knew that I only had an hour and then he had to get back on his plane and fly to California, where I wouldn't get to see him again for another month. So for just an hour of my life, I experienced a very high-high and a very low-low, which is hard to wrap your head around: to be so excited and happy, and yet sad at the same time.”

Even after Paul was back home, Jesse enjoyed putting together the care packages so much, she figured why stop now. Just because Paul was back home, that didn’t mean she had to stop putting them together, so she continued. A short time after that, Jesse formed Dear Hero Program, a Penn State undergraduate student group whose focus is to support and raise the morale of deployed soldiers and wounded veterans.

Paul was still in California when the group began in 2010, acting as the organization’s active duty liaison. Paul now serves as president, and Jesse, who previously served as president, now acts as the program’s community involvement chair.

Dear Hero Program started with about 10 members, and quickly grew, doubling and tripling in size. Now, about 40–50 people regularly attend most meetings and there are nearly 1,000 people on the organization’s email list. Add in social media postings and on-campus events such as bake sales and hosting informational tables at places like the HUB, and the reach continues to expand.

Eisenhower Auditorium held a collection drive this month that contributed to the approximately 20 care packages the group sends every month. As of last week, Dear Hero Program had sent approximately 325 care packages since the group’s inception.

“That has been one of my favorite things about watching this organization grow,” Jesse said. “Our first semester, we were only able to host one care packaging event at the very end of the semester, when we sent out 15 packages. The rest of that semester was spent fundraising so we could send out those 15 packages. And now Dear Hero Program does that every month! I think it's pretty cool.”

DHP Eisenhower

Eisenhower Auditorium held a collection drive for Dear Hero Program during October. Paul said the effort was the group's biggest university outreach collaboration, adding Dear Hero Program is constantly looking for ways to partner with University and community organizations. 

Image: John Patishnock

In addition to the donations, Paul includes an official letter in each package, letting recipients know about the group and from where they’re receiving donations. Boxes contain necessities and also morale-boosting items such as Penn State T-shirts, stickers, magnets, hats, and stuffed footballs and Nittany Lions.

The feedback has been universally great. Troops will share photos of themselves holding up a T-shirt or other item, and Paul and the group receive letters in return, thanking them. They even sent one shipment to a Penn State alum, by accident. The alum responded, sending a letter back to Paul, telling him what he was doing was great, and also needed.

“It is our main mission to send packages to deployed troops,” Paul said. “It's a little piece of home that some soldiers might not be getting.”

There are different components to the group. Paul previously served as vice president, and one of his contributions was traveling to the VA hospital in Altoona to play bingo with older veterans. But what got the group started, reminding troops overseas that they’re not forgotten, remains the top priority.

This last point is particularly important to Paul. He’s familiar with the isolation that can sometimes creep in because he lived it. When you’re surrounded by nothing that reminds you of home, receiving anything, even a small trinket, can make a big difference, he said. 

"It kept me going,” Paul said of receiving care packages from Jesse. “Day in and day out, you work 20-hour days most of the time. It gets really hard on the body, hard on the mind; you're with the same 12 guys, day in and day out, and it gets old fast. But knowing that she's there writing letters, sending me packages, it kept me going, kept me positive about going home and being back stateside.”

The organization goes about business diligently and efficiently. Committee members mail packages on a monthly basis, adhering to a regular schedule to ensure they have a regular cash flow. And the program uses websites such as anymarine.com and anysoldier.com to research where and to whom to send packages.

There’s a selective process in place, not to exclude anybody, but just to make sure Dear Hero Program maximizes donations by sending items to those who are most in need.

"We want to send to people who are sleeping on the dirt, who don't have anything, because that's where the most support is needed,” Paul said. “They need the most things because they're always moving, they're in smaller bases and don't have amenities like running water and showers, a PX to go buy food every day. A lot of times they don't have chow halls, so that's how we usually pick who we send to."

Originally from Wisconsin, Paul hopes to attend law school at the University of Tennessee after graduating from Penn State. He and Jesse visited the state during their honeymoon, with Paul saying the Tennessee campus is basically “Happy Valley with warmer weather.”

He and Jesse both plan to stay in touch with Dear Hero Program in the future, helping any way they can. And there are plenty of ways for individuals and groups to contribute now, whether it’s through monetary donations, holding a collection drive, joining the email list or attending an event. 

Paul said it takes a special kind of college student who can digest an entire week’s worth of work and then also volunteer his or her time for a group like Dear Hero Program, but Penn Staters are doing it, more so now than ever.

That’s why his hope of the group continuing to make an impact will probably hold true.

"We keep getting more people,” Paul said. “Every semester, I see new faces and have more people coming to every meeting. So we're growing, and it's awesome to see it."

To stay updated on Dear Hero Program’s progress, follow the organization on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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Last Updated November 03, 2014