Nine years of beef jerky, Oreos and caring from Ohio couple gives deployed troops a lift

By BRIAN ALBRECHT | The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer | Published: April 14, 2019

MEDINA, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — If you really want to show your appreciation for a servicemember deployed overseas, there’s one thing you can do.

Send ’em some beef jerky.

In the past nine years of corresponding with some 45 soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen stationed abroad, Carl and Jane Meding have discovered that jerky is the No. 1 requested treat.

But it’s not just jerky. It’s Oreos, too. And protein bars, special packages on birthdays and holidays, and regular correspondence.

And above all, caring.

Neither of the Medings is a veteran, and their only prior military connections were fathers who served during World War II (hers in the American army, his in the German).

So why the sudden commitment to total strangers in the military?

“For me, it’s a sense of giving back,” said Jane Meding, 62. “It’s my way of thanking them for what they’ve done for all of us.

“Without them, we don’t have a stable, safe country, and I get the feeling I’m helping them,” she added. “Since I can’t do the job that they’re doing, I’d like to try to help them.”

Their support campaign started in 2010 after reading an article in The Plain Dealer written by a soldier serving in Iraq.

Carl Meding, 66, chief bailiff at Medina Municipal Court, said the soldier wrote how happy he was to have gotten some toothpaste in a care package from home.

“It’s like, ‘Toothpaste?’ We’ve got the greatest military in world and we’ve got to send them toothpaste? That got us thinking about what we could do to help,” he recalled.

They eventually found an online charity, Adopt a US Soldier (AAUSS), that links people with military personnel on deployment.

According to its website, www.adoptaussoldier.org, the group is “a 501(c)(3) volunteer-based organization that connects supportive civilians with deployed troops and offers a channel by which to communicate encouragement and express gratitude to the brave men and women serving our nation and the world.”

The group was founded in 2005 by Ann Johnson, who sent packages to her son, who was a medic serving in Iraq, and his unit. She got friends involved in the support and the effort grew from there.

The Medings said there is no fee to use AAUSS services.

“They’re not a pen-pal site, they’re not a dating site. They just want you to support whoever you get,” Carl Meding said. “It’s just keeping in contact with them, writing to them.”

Jane Meding added, “Your level of support really depends on what you would like to do, from keeping in touch with them to sending them things that they might need.

“Whatever you’re comfortable with doing,” she added. “We usually send goodie boxes once a month, and we keep in touch with them regularly through e-mail.”

“Or Facebook messenger,” Carl Meding added. “Sometimes you’re able to establish a really good relationship, and I mean, the communication goes back and forth.”

According to the Medings, the key to building those kind of relationships is gaining a servicemember’s trust.

Ask questions. What are their interests? That provides subjects for conversations.

“You really want to be encouraging,” Jane said. “You want to thank them for what they’re doing. They need to know that they’re appreciated, that they’re thought of fondly.”

Politics, religion, even spouses and family members are avoided unless a servicemember brings them up.

“We’re not here to intrude on their lives,” Carl said.

“No, we’re here to try to make them a little better,” his wife added.

What are their likes? Their needs? That offers ideas for goodie boxes.

Those packages can contain anything from snacks and books to a few more unusual items — like the unit that had a craving for whole dill pickles, or the woman who needed long underwear for duty in Syria.

It also makes for some unusual shopping trips.

One soldier had developed a taste for Korean food from a previous deployment. As Carl Meding recalled, “So we found an Asian market in Akron and went down there and told them, ‘We’ve got a soldier. He likes Korean stuff; what do you suggest?’ ”

Jane Meding continued, “They didn’t speak much English, and we spoke no Korean, but we managed to get him stuff that he was thrilled with.”

She added that sometimes when they’re shopping for soldiers’ packages, they’ll have a cart piled with snacks, and people will give them funny looks and say, “Boy, you guys really like snacks.”

“And we’ll say, ‘No, they’re going to soldiers,’ and then as you tell them about it, they’ll say, ‘Well that sounds interesting, how do I get involved?’ ”

Some vendors they use regularly give them discounts, but Jane Meding emphasized, “We don’t ask for a discount. We don’t ask for anything to be donated. No, we do it on our own. But once they hear what we’re doing, they want to help, too.”

The Medings are sometimes referred by servicemembers to others in their units.

“Right now, were working on dog handlers, the MPs with (bomb detecting) dogs, so we’re getting passed around by all the people there,” Jane said.

They limit their military beneficiaries to two or three at a time, usually spanning the typical six- to 10-month deployment.

As a group, the servicemembers they have corresponded with are uniformly patriotic and “care about what they’re doing. They think that what they’re doing is important and I think the rest of us need to let them know that that’s correct,” Jane said.

There are times when a servicemember can be going through some serious issues. That can be a little difficult “because they’re so far away and you want to just wrap them up in your arms and tell them everything’s fine, and you can’t do that,” Jane said.

“You let them know that you care, just try to be as supportive as you can.”

The Medings say they have been fortunate in that only one of their correspondents was wounded (a Marine hit by an improvised explosive device).

“We tried to support him through his recovery and after he got out for a while, just to make sure he was doing OK,” Jane said.

Eventually there comes a time when a servicemember’s deployment ends, and with it, their relationship with the Medings.

Or not.

The couple have visited more than a half-dozen servicemembers at bases across the country after their deployments, and still correspond with a few.

“It’s GREAT,” Carl Meding said of the visits. “Just actually seeing the person, and being able to talk to them about the last 10 months or whatever.”

Jane Meding added, “For me, it’s getting to hug them and let them know personally that I am so grateful for them.”

The feeling is mutual, according to her husband, who said, “They’re just really grateful that someone was thinking of them.”

“That somebody paid attention,” Jane Meding added.

Steve Whitford, 39, of Dallas, was an Army medic in Afghanistan when he started corresponding with the Medings in 2012.

“We hit it off really well,” said Whitford, who was the soldier with a taste for Korean food.

“It definitely helped to know there were complete strangers back home in America who, you could tell, really cared,” he added. “It was a huge, uplifting thing.”

When Whitford got back to the U.S., he visited the Medings, and they returned the visit to attend his wedding reception.

Army Sgt. Sabrina Westmoreland, 27, of the 226th Military Police Battalion headquartered in Fort Hood, Texas, started corresponding with the Medings in 2016 when she was deployed to Egypt.

The packages that the Medings sent to Westmoreland, a dog handler, included magazines, laundry pods, packaged tuna, beef jerky and treats for her dog, Diesel.

Westmoreland, who refers to the Medina couple as “Mr. Carl and Miss Jane,” recalled, “They were definitely a godsend to me. They were absolutely the best part of every week that I was there.

“Having conversations with them made me feel comfortable,” she added. “They were like a little piece of home, almost like I had a new member of the family.”

And those conversations didn’t have to be anything momentous. In fact, it was better that they weren’t, according to Westmoreland.

“For me, the best part was just hearing about somebody’s day-to-day life,” she said. “It was just a kind-of distraction from what you’re currently dealing with.

“Just having somebody ask how you’re doing, that was a huge thing because sometimes you didn’t have other people to ask how I was doing, what’s going on,” she added.

It’s all the reward the Medings need.

“It’s always nice when they tell you how appreciative they are,” Carl said. “That always makes you feel good.”

His wife added, “It warms your heart. Yeah, it lets you know that you’re doing something that’s worthwhile.”

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