ARLINGTON, Va. — Frankie Mayo is running both hot and cold these days.
The intrepid mom from Delaware, founder of “Operation Air Conditioner,” has branched out for the winter months, switching her focus from AC units to free shipments of space heaters and top-of-the-line combat boots to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mayo said she wants all of the servicemembers who will spend the Christmas holidays far from home “to know you have not been forgotten.
“Anything you need, just let me know, and I’ll get it to you,” Mayo said in a Thursday telephone interview.
Mayo launched Operation AC back in June, after her son, Cpl. Chris Tomlinson of the Army’s 300th Military Police Co, e-mailed her from Iraq:
“Hey mom, yeah i am OK it is hot as hell here. last week the temp reached 143 my platoon said they would be very grateful if you guys sent us air conditioners.”
Mayo not only sent Chris the unit he craved, she decided to send more to his buddies — the entire deployed Army, to be precise.
In addition to thousands of air conditioners, Mayo has sent troops everything from medical supplies to toilet seats — over $500,000 worth of supplies, she said.
The funds to purchase the supplies came from corporate sponsors, particularly Home Depot — which gave her 600 air conditioners and $25,000 — and more than 10,000 people who have sent everything from 50 cents to $5,000, Mayo said.
Most of the money was generated in July, when Mayo received a spate of media attention that included appearances on “Good Morning America,” Fox News, CNN, and numerous other outlets.
With Iraq on the verge of winter, and snow already on the mountaintops of Afghanistan, Mayo has switched her focus to space heaters and boots.
She has also started a new “adopt a soldier” program, which links American families with a deployed member. Already, Mayo has “placed” 2,000 servicemembers with families who want to offer special holiday cheer to someone in the military, sending “care packages,” letters and cards.
Mayo is also getting ready to start shipping “predecorated Christmas trees” to units that would like to add some Yuletide cheer to their quarters.
Mayo is using the U.S. Postal Service to send the heaters, boots and other items. But after shipping 1,450 AC units, the Post Office stopped accepting the air conditioners, because they contain potentially hazardous substances that are not legal to ship.
In early September, the Army and the military’s Air Mobility Command helped by airlifting a shipment of 560 air conditioners to Iraq from Dover, Del.
But Mayo had to send a second shipment of 540 units through DHL-Danzis Air & Ocean, at a cost of $71,900, after the Army balked at using military transport.
The reason Mayo was given was that Pentagon lawyers found a policy prohibiting servicemembers from accepting gifts worth more than $20.
Fine, Mayo said she replied; she would send the air conditioners to units, rather than specific soldiers. That compromise should have solved the problem — only it didn’t, even after Mayo provided Army officials with a detailed spreadsheet listing specific units and the number of air conditioners requested.
Mayo still has a warehouse full of AC units waiting to go to Iraq, including five very large units, designed to cool entire hangars, destined for the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Iraq.
But there’s still no word from the Pentagon on whether the units will get military shipment, either aboard ships or by air.
Gary Jones, a spokesman for the Third Army at Fort McPherson, Ga., said that the Army has put Mayo’s request “on the fast track.”
As U.S. Central Command’s Coalition Forces Land Component, the Third Army is responsible for managing any donations going into CENTCOM’s theater of operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We know she’s getting frustrated,” Jones said in a Friday telephone interview.
But while “on the one hand, it’s a very good thing this lady is doing, on the other hand, it presents a lot of challenges,” Jones said.
The issues are more complex than they appear at first glance, Jones said, and include safety, the manpower and costs of moving bulky items to troops and the possibility of electrical devices impacting other assets.
Jones said that the Third Army has pulled together a committee to try to figure out how to handle Mayo’s desire to send supplies to troops, without the shipments affecting the mission.
At the same time, senior Pentagon leaders, Army officials, and logistics specialists are trying to formulate a policy regarding donations to deployed troops, Jones said.
Jones said that military officials are very aware of the need to formulate ways Americans can offer concrete support to troops — the Third Army alone receives “eight to 12 very noble offers of donations every month,” he said.
“It’s wonderful, but we can choke on wonderful very quickly,” Jones said. “We’re all trying to figure out a way” to accept donations and get them to troops, Mayo’s in particular.
“But we need to have a coherent policy … and we need to do it smart,” he said.
Two senators — Joe Biden, D-Del., and John McCain, R-Ariz. — and a Congressman, Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., are also working on Mayo’s behalf, offering staff who are making telephone calls to the Pentagon to try to break the shipping logjam.
Staffers for Biden have asked experts in the Pentagon’s Legal Affairs office to find out precisely where the “$20 rule” can be found, and how much time has passed since the regulation was reviewed to see if it’s still relevant.
Depending on the answer, a staffer said Friday, Biden may decide to work with Hayes to craft a bill that would eliminate or modify the rule.
Mayo said she’s in this for the long haul, even after Chris comes home from Iraq next year (he’s currently in Karbala, in the south of the country).
“As long as there are troops in Iraq, I’m going to do this,” she said. “I can’t just say, ‘Oh, my kid’s out of there, I’m done now’,” she said. “That would be a horrible thing to do.”
“This isn’t about me. I’m just a voice for a lot of people who want to help.”
For more information, and for servicemembers who would like to request heaters, air conditioners, boots or other supplies can sign up at www.operationac.com.
Servicemembers can also communicate directly with Mayo’s organization by e-mailing email@example.com (this e-mail is only for deployed servicemembers, however).
People who would like to send a donation can make checks payable to Operation Air Conditioner, and send the money to:
Operation Air Conditioner
560 Peoples Plaza
Newark, DE 19702.