MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Thousands of Marines are deployed worldwide every year. They endure long absences from home, sometimes in some of the most austere places on earth. Sometimes they might need a new toothbrush or some socks. Maybe they crave a piece of candy or a cookie, but these items aren't easily come by in some areas where the Corps operates.
Operation Interdependence, a civilian-to-military delivery system, strives to make those small creature comforts a reality. Albert Renteria, a retired 26-year Marine veteran who knows what servicemembers miss during deployments, founded the program.
Renteria, a Gulf War veteran, began laying the groundwork for Operation Interdependence during his tour in the Gulf more than a decade ago.
"I realized during the Gulf War, there was no real effective process that managed care package deliveries to our Marines," he said. "Working there and taking part in developing reach-back capabilities gave me a great perspective on how best to launch OI. All of this experience and seeing how packages raised morale is why I started the program."
The packages are designed to provide a lot of useful items. Even the material they're packed in, large zip lock bags, can be used to store items and keep gear or photos dry.
"Not only did they send us stuff we needed like toothpaste and brushes, they also sent us letters and pictures so we could write back and correspond with people from all over the country," said Cpl. Matthew Huber, embarkation noncommissioned officer, L Company, Battalion Landing Team 3/1, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). "It just made us feel good to know there were people out there that care and take time out to remember us."
In January 2002, Operation Interdependence began supporting about 1,100 Marines from a battalion landing team. Within six months they doubled that number by supporting the 2,200 Marines and sailors of the 11th MEU (SOC) during their regularly scheduled deployment to the Central Command Area of Operations.
"We had humble beginnings by supporting a battalion landing team, then adding the 11th MEU (SOC)," Renteria said. "We are about to support more than 4,000 troops, then add another 2,000 in ninety days and by the end of the year add another very sizeable number."
Even with the large amount of boxes and materials OI sends to deployed units, Renteria's aim is to affect military resources as little as possible.
"It is designed to ensure packages are not sent unscheduled," he said. "OI coordinates a means by which civilians furnish support and services without impacting military resources. We don't want to increase the workload of the servicemembers who mail and distribute the care packages."
Each box Operation Interdependence sends out can support between 30-50 servicemembers, depending on a platoon's size. The program and its 40,000 volunteers have shipped more than 30,000 bags, or 'c-rations,' to thousands of servicemenbers all over the world.
"The amount of thought people put into the packages was great. I always enjoyed getting them in the mail and it gave us something to look forward to," said Cpl. James Dunning, network administrator, command element, 11th MEU (SOC).
"It is nice to know somebody somewhere out there is thinking about us while we are deployed," Dunning said. "It also gives the people back home something to do to support us in their own way."
Supporting in her own way is something that Sharon Smith, a resident of Southern California and 'mom' to a platoon with L Company, BLT 3/1, 11th MEU (SOC), is proud to do.
"I sponsor my platoon alone and try to buy 45 of each item to ship so that every package is equal," Smith said, a civilian supporter of OI. "I'm proud to be affiliated with the military, even as a bystander. Their bravery and devotion to duty is what makes this country the best in the world."
The program is meant to be simple, with no more than a few dollars worth of items in each 'c-ration' or baggie. Also included are letters from music artists who recently attended the American Music Awards, such as 3 doors down, Buster Ryhmes, Paula Abdul, B2K, Kellie Coffey, Missy Elliot and Matchbox 20.
"The cost right now averages to be about $3.80 a bag. I'd like to get that cost down and not put more than a dollar or two worth of stuff in there," Renteria said. "Servicemembers aren't worried about getting a gallon zip lock with ten pounds of candy in it. Give them something that's not going to weigh down their pack more than it already is, a plastic baggie with a card and some little stuff."
As founder, providing a morale-enhancing program is something Renteria describes as fulfilling.
"We are supporting Marines and sailors, and it feels great. My goal is to reach all of our deployed armed forces one c-ration at a time," Renteria said. "It will feel much better when I know we are supporting members from each service. Marines 'take care of our own' -- in this nation that means all those fighting for our freedoms."
Even with the success of Operation Interdependence, Renteria doesn't take credit for reaching so many servicemembers with his program.
"You, me, students, churches, businesses, the American people, our military, the volunteers and many more are responsible for the success of Operation Interdependence," Renteria said. "All OI coordinators are real people delivering real care packages to real heroes."
To learn more about Operation Interdependence or to see what you can do to help, visit their website at www.oidelivers.com.