Eleanor Maloney doesn’t want soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to feel like they don’t have enough support at home. So each week, the 49-year-old Mesa homemaker sends a letter to two soldiers fighting in Iraq.
Maloney’s never met the troops, yet she describes to her pen pals day-to-day life in the East Valley and, about once a month, mails them care packages.
“I don’t think this war should be anything like Vietnam,” Maloney said. “I don’t agree with the politics of this war, but I do agree that our soldiers need support.”
Maloney heads the Arizona chapter of the Reagan Round Up — a national organization that adopts troops stationed overseas and then pairs each soldier with a pen pal in the United States. There are Reagan Round Up chapters in every state except New Mexico.
Local pen pals send letters to troops, rather than e-mails. The “snail mail” correspondence means troops don’t have to rely on computer access, which is often limited.
And receiving letters at mail-call is important to soldiers, said Dawn Gilsdorf, Reagan Round Up founder and president.
“When they hear their names called, they feel they’re not alone,” said Gilsdorf, a 45-year-old San Diego real estate agent. “They know somebody cares about them.”
The organization started in December 2005, when Gilsdorf’s son was deployed to Iraq as a crewmember aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier with a crew of about 5,700 sailors and pilots, according to the Department of the Navy.
Gilsdorf started developing a pen pal program linking several of her friends with crew members aboard the Navy vessel.
Weeks later, her idea had snowballed into a program that now includes personnel from all military branches. Gilsdorf said when she realized the program needed a name, she chose the ship where it all started.
Now, there are about 1,500 U.S. members of the Reagan Round Up nationwide, who correspond with about 2,000 troops, Gilsdorf said.
“This is all word-of-mouth,” she said.
Although the Reagan Round Up quickly gained popularity within the United States, Maloney said the response from troops overseas is overwhelming. About 4,000 soldiers are still waiting for pen pals, she said.
“The imbalance is so bad,” Maloney said.
Right now, there are only three members in Arizona, including Maloney and Mary Ann Mantel, a 57-year-old Gilbert teacher who writes to a soldier serving in Iraq.
Mantel said that when she was younger, she corresponded regularly with two of her brothers and several uncles who served in the Navy.
“It’s kind of like a family thing,” she said, adding that letter-writing is now a habit for her.
Mantel said that in her letters to soldiers, she simply talks about aspects of her daily life. Mantel added that she’d been pondering what to include in a care package for her pen pal. She decided to send chocolate chip cookies.
“Everybody likes those,” she said.
For more information about the Reagan Round Up pen pal program, visit www.reaganroundup.org.