A million thank-yous to our troops

It's a good thing Jeanette Cram prefers eating boiled peanuts to chocolate chips.

Otherwise, it might have taken the Hilton Head Island resident and her cookie-baking nonprofit organization much longer to reach the milestone that it did recently.

Since 1990, with the help of a nationwide network of volunteers she calls “Crumbs,” Cram has baked and mailed more than 1 million homemade cookies to deployed military men and women in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

She started her nonprofit, Treat the Troops, after hearing President George H.W. Bush read a letter from a soldier to his mom on television.

“All he wanted was cookies and letters from home,” Cram said. “So I thought, ‘I can do that.'”

Ever since, she's spent a lot of time in the kitchen — baking cookies or packing boxes.

“The ingredients are always here, because they're just simple Mama cookies. Not that gourmet stuff,” she said. “I figure they're pretty much all my kids anyway. They're all ours.”

Though Cram's plan to send a taste of home to deployed troops began as an individual effort in her then New Jersey-based kitchen, she attributes its growth and success as a virtual nationwide volunteer cookie brand to word-of-mouth and the Internet. Hilton Head residents got involved when she moved to the island in 1992.

“I just got some friends over and said, ‘We need to stop going shopping and do something for the soldiers instead.' So we started baking,” Cram recalled.

“Then somebody called me from Operation Shoebox and said, ‘Can we put your name up on our Web site?' All of a sudden, I was getting a hundred e-mails a day from soldiers and people wanting to be volunteers.”

Now, the former one-woman baking endeavor has turned into quite a well-oiled operation with its own Web site, www.treatthetroops.org, and hundreds of Crumbs spread out across the nation. Out-of-state volunteers will contact Cram to get the names and addresses of troops in need of cookies, and she'll add their tallies to the Treat the Troops total.

“The best part about what we do is you don't have to go anywhere to volunteer,” Cram said. “You just do it in your own home when you feel like it.”

In early June, 460 dozen cookies wrapped in plastic formed a mini-mountain on Cram's kitchen counter, while dozens of boxes lined the floor waiting to be packed with the morsels. Cram's neighbor and Hilton Head Crumb Jill Arneman said the women have gotten the process down to a science, including the ideal cookie size for shipping.

“It's about two inches,” Arneman said with a laugh. “You'd be surprised how trying to get them all to fit just right can slow down the process.”

According to Arneman, who handles the logistics, one flat rate box from the post office gets filled with a package of candy, wet wipes, drink mixes to flavor water, a letter from each Crumb and five dozen cookies. Larger boxes that are packed for a unit, instead of individuals, typically contain enough goodies for 170 troops.

Between requests from friends and family writing on behalf of their deployed loved ones, and troops writing on behalf of their fellow soldiers, Cram said she's never at a loss for a name or reason to keep sending the cookies.

“I keep every letter. Every e-mail,” she said, pointing to a row of photo albums filled with thank-you notes and pictures. “We just got a request from a guy who's gotten cookies on his prior two deployments. He said he wanted more for this next (deployment), because he figured we brought him good luck.

“… I mean, it takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of time, but when you meet the soldiers or read letters like that, you know why we don't stop. I'll be doing this until I get called yonder. For as long as they seem to need us.”