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On a rainy Monday afternoon, relatives and friends of 16-year Air Force veteran Matt Mueller gathered in a garage in Mahomet to assemble 125 care packages to send to him in the Middle East.
All 125 weren't for Mueller himself, of course—he'll hand them out to his fellow soldiers, in order to spread a little Independence Day cheer.
Mueller's sisters, Patty Kieffer and Marie Burge, spearheaded the effort. "We were going to send him one care package, and it just escalated," Kieffer said. The project was so extensive that friends dubbed it "Operation Picnic Basket." Each package will contain the ingredients necessary to celebrate the Fourth of July in true American style.
They assembled the care packages, each in its own one-gallon zipper bag, with mathematical precision; labels on each bowl and box indicated exactly how many pieces of bubble gum or packets of instant coffee were to be given to each soldier.
Mueller is serving as loadmaster on a C-17 transport aircraft somewhere in the Middle East—his family isn't sure exactly where he is at any given time.
During his years in the military he's served everywhere from Kosovo to Kuwait, and been sent plenty of boxes of goodies from home. But this is the first time that his family has mailed care packages on such a vast scale. Mueller plans to hand the packages out to the men he serves with, as well as any other U.S. military personnel he comes across in the course of his work.
The packages will contain a variety of items: small American flags, hard candies, homemade caramel corn, snack crackers, festive patriotic picnic napkins, powdered drink mix, packets of hot sauce and even cigars donated by Mueller's father, Bill.
The sisters solicited ideas for items to send in a conversation over Skype with their brother. "He's really looking forward to getting this," Burge said.
In addition, the packages will contain homemade beef jerky, a specialty of Jean Mueller, Matt's mother. Last time he was deployed she sent him a package of jerky every two weeks during the four months he was away—and he reported that fellow airmen anxiously awaited each new delivery.
Jean Mueller estimated that about 12 pounds of hamburger went into making the jerky for the care packages, and reported that she was getting ready to go home and make some more.
Each package will also contain a handmade card from a student at Blessed Sacrament School in Morton, where Kieffer's sister-in-law is a teacher.
All the items were donated, and additional cash donations will help cover the cost of postage: possibly as much as $200. Burge and Kieffer got the word out about the project using Facebook and email, but also an old-fashioned letter sent to friends and relatives in Central Illinois and around the country.
It'll take from two to three weeks for the care packages to arrive—just in time for Independence Day.
Members of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church also pitched in to donate items and help assemble the packages. Kieffer and Burge decided to send additional care packages to two young men from that congregation who are also serving overseas.
"It's the least we can do for all the sacrifices these guys are making," said volunteer John Aune, whose son-in-law is serving in Afghanistan. He added that support and messages from home mean a lot to military personnel serving overseas.
Kieffer agreed. "If we can offer some comfort to them, I'm glad to do it," she said.