Iraq a drain on Toys for Tots

Staffing: With more Marine reservists serving overseas, the Christmas program is strapped for volunteers.

December 20, 2004|By P.J. Huffstutter | P.J. Huffstutter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CHICAGO - Toys fill the gymnasium - boxes of teddy bears press against a weapons cabinet, bags of dolls and games are stacked high - but it isn't Christmas as usual at the Marine Corps Reserves training center.

This year, Toys for Tots - the program that has put toys into the hands of millions of kids and let the nation see the softer side of Marines for close to 60 years - is missing many of the men and women who are its driving force.

"We had 270 reservists helping us with Toys for Tots last year," said Maj. Rick Coates of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines. "This year, we're lucky to have 20 people. Everyone else is in Iraq."

Ten members of the battalion have died there since October.

With overseas deployments stretching on, and reservists and active-duty military personnel being tapped to serve repeat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marine officials say Toys for Tots groups across the country are struggling to find enough people to staff the charity effort.

Last year, Toys for Tots, which is run by the Marine Corps Reserves, distributed 15 million donated toys to 6.6 million kids. The Toys for Tots Foundation, based in Quantico, Va., also routinely kicks in an additional $30 million to $40 million worth of toys to nonprofit organizations nationwide.

At the Chicago training center where Coates is based, more than 150,000 gifts to needy children are collected, sorted and given away each year.

Military officials say they hope there will be just as many toys, waiting for just as many children, this year. But they worry about a shortage of Marines who can move the toys out of the donation bins and help place them under the Christmas tree.

"With the mobilizations, the units need help," said Maj. Tom Nelson, national Toys for Tots coordinator. "So we're turning to civilians, retirees, anyone willing to help out for a good cause."

Such pleas are being issued in Washington and California, where scores of the Marine units have been tapped for duty.

In Boston and surrounding areas of Massachusetts, retired Marines in their 70s and 80s volunteered to fill the gap, and have spent the past few weeks sorting Tickle Me Elmo dolls and Tonka trucks. So many reservists have been deployed from Corpus Christi, Texas, that eight reservists are handling a workload carried by 80 last year.

In Illinois, all but one of the state's Marine Corps Reserves units has been activated. Overseas deployments have diminished the 145 toy-toting reservists from one of the battalion's companies in Waukegan, Ill., down to five.

"I'm happy that we even have five," said 1st Sgt. Joe Thornton. "We're calling some of the units in Wisconsin for help, but they're pretty spread thin too."

Marine units run about 179 of the nation's more than 481 Toys for Tots sites, said Nelson.

The remainder are organized by military retirees or civilian groups.

The program was founded by Los Angeles reservist Bill Hendricks in 1947, after his wife sewed a Raggedy Ann doll. She asked him to find a group that would give the doll to a needy child. When Hendricks couldn't find a home for the doll, his wife told him that he needed to start such an organization.

In Chicago, when the phones at the Joseph J. McCarthy training center began ringing with requests this fall, most of the reservists with the field service-support battalion were in Iraq, stationed in the Babil province south of Baghdad, the capital.

Coates, who in civilian life is a logistics manager for Sears, is one of the few battalion members left behind and is helping to lead the program.

Searching for manpower, he and the rest of the reserves have posted fliers in local grocery stores, called up veterans groups, and cajoled military families and friends.

Some volunteers have come forward.

Bridgette Lappen of Evanston stopped by the training center three weeks ago after hearing about the battalion's plight on the radio.

Work at her company had slowed for the holidays, so she offered to spend a few hours helping with clerical work.

She has worked every day since, up to eight hours per day.

"How can you not want to be here?" she asked. "They've lost so much, and they need us."

Amid the public's clamor for holiday help, Coates and the remaining Marines also have had to wrestle with the grim realities of war.

The first member of the battalion was killed in October. In November, six were killed in one week. Another died on Thanksgiving. Two more were killed last week. The funerals tentatively are set for this week, a day or two before Christmas Eve.

As Coates walked through the center's gymnasium, winding his way through towers of toys nearly 10 feet tall, he greeted two Marines wearing formal dress uniforms.

"You dressed for Toys for Tots or a funeral?" Coates asked.

One Marine showed Coates a tightly folded U.S. flag and replied, "Funeral."

The pair left and quickly changed into fatigues. Within minutes, they returned to the gymnasium and started packing Scooby Doo blankets and hula hoops into boxes.

Now, the Marines say they average 18-hour days. This week, they expect to be busy around the clock.

"We're going to be just like Santa, delivering toys at the last minute," Coates said. "There's no alternative. We have to get this done."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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