It was no ordinary day at Whiting Elementary school, as fifth grade students gathered in front of an interactive whiteboard connected to Skype, the web video call site, eagerly awaiting the moment when Airman Michael Harrold’s image would appear on the screen, live from his military base in Afghanistan.
Standing by was Harrold’s mom, Darlene Rasmussen, who arranged the chat to thank the students for their help in collecting supplies for care packages to be sent to the troops through Operation Shoebox New Jersey. “This is the first class we’ve ever done this with,” said Rasmussen.
As Harrold’s image appeared on the screen from halfway around the world, the students excitedly waved to him through the webcam. It was about 10:00 a.m. Whiting time and 6:30 p.m. Afghanistan time, and Airman Harrold was just getting off work. The video image was a little fuzzy but the audio connection was very clear. Harrold, who is 20 years old and a graduate of Colts Neck High School, is stationed at Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, about five kilometers from the Pakistan border. He has been in Afghanistan since July 2010 and is scheduled to return home in January.
Rasmussen invited the students to come up to the computer individually and ask a question of her son. Below are some of the questions and responses:
How is the food? Harrold said most of the food they get ‘is not very good’ but that he has been able to try some local cooking, including goat and sheep meat.
What do you like best in the care packages? “Chapstick is something we all really appreciate here.”
What do you do for fun? “We like to play poker; sometimes we use rocks if we don’t have any poker chips. We try to make the best of everything.” Mom added that he also enjoys watching his favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, and sometimes stays up all night to watch a game.
Do you like being in the service? “Absolutely. When I first joined I really liked it, then I had a hard time for while, but now I realize how much I’ve learned that I never would have done without the service and I know I absolutely made the right decision.”
What do you do (for work)? Harrold is in the Air Force and his specialty is ground radio communication maintenance. He said he is assigned to work with Army personnel on base and he also supervises six local Afghan soldiers.
If you didn’t join the Air Force what would you be doing? “I’d probably be attending a four-year college. I’m taking college courses now and hope to get a degree when I get home.”
Do you miss your family? “Absolutely. I’d do anything to be home right now.”
How many soldiers are at your base? “There are about 800-900 at Spin Boldak, but I am actually in an FOB (Forward Operating Base) with only 17 people here.”
Where do you live? “I live in a small house that we built out of wood. Originally, it was just a giant room with 8 beds, but then we put up walls so we each have our own little bedroom space.” He rotated the camera to show his tiny room that barely fit his small bed and a nightstand.
Where do you shower? “We go the shower tent that’s nearby.”
What’s your favorite part of the day? “When I get off work.”
Rasmussen said that the soldiers work 12 hours a day or more everyday, with no weekends off. She asked Harrold to describe a typical day. “I’m up at 4:30 and I go to the gym tent. It’s not much but it does the job. Then I shower and go to work, get yelled at by the Colonel a little bit, later I might get yelled at a little more, then sometime around 5:00 to 8:00 I get off work. I talk to my family and then I go to bed.”
Then it was time for Airman Harrold to sign off. He thanked the students and they said goodbye.
Rasmussen told the students that Project Shoebox NJ would like to arrange a packing session at Whiting School, perhaps in late January, and that she would also like to arrange for her son to be there in person to meet the students. She said he should be back at his base in Virginia around January 19 and would return home to Bricktown for a visit soon after that.
“I want to thank you so much for your hard work collecting supplies to be sent our soldiers overseas,” she said. “Thank you also for the cards you made. They were amazing and a lot of them are on their way right now to the troops. We recently packed 600 boxes, including the items you collected. I can’t tell you how exciting it is for them to receive these packages. They don’t have much of their own. They have a large backpack that holds everything they own – they are living out of their backpack.”
What did the students think of the Skype experience? “It was exciting to talk to a soldier from half way around the world,” said ReAnna Barstow. Kylee Bell said, “It was incredible. You don’t get to talk to a soldier everyday, and get to do it in school on Skype, and all the way from Afghanistan.”
Whiting School’s Junior Impact Club has already begun another collection for Operation Shoebox. For more information on what is needed, visit www.manchestertwp.org/news/ws_collection_for_troops.html or call the school at 732-350-4994.
Operation Shoebox New Jersey is a volunteer, grass roots organization dedicated to collecting donated supplies and shipping care packages to U.S. troops based in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle East countries. They are a registered 501c3 non-profit charity. To date, the organization has shipped more than 36,000 packages to troops deployed overseas.