When Operation Troop Appreciation (OTA) shipped its first round of care packages to a platoon of National Guard soldiers who were deployed to the Middle East during the Iraq War, the initial intent was to quickly meet an immediate need.
“OTA’s founder Kristen Holloway learned that some of our troops needed moisture wicking clothing to stay cool in the extreme heat,” said Monica Orluk, who is a founding member, and now serves as the organization’s chief executive officer. “Kristen mobilized a small team of volunteers from the Pittsburgh area who began sending Under Armor® T-shirts, personal hygiene supplies, snacks and other necessities to troops who were fighting in Iraq and other hot spots in the Middle East. Our plan was to continue sending care packages until the war ended. We didn’t anticipate what would happen next.”
Eighteen years later, OTA has served more than 200,000 active-duty troops and veterans representing all branches of the U.S. military, including the National Guard and the Reserves. Monica added, “OTA has achieved such phenomenal growth that it is now ranked among the 10 top-rated veteran nonprofits by Military.com.”
“All of us at OTA are proud of reaching this remarkable milestone,” said Orluk. “We couldn’t have served so many troops and veterans without the help of volunteers, private individuals, small businesses and corporate sponsors who provide financial support, participate in collection drives and help organize special events. It’s heartwarming to see how many people have continued to rally behind our troops and veterans.”
The cornerstone of OTA is its Active-Duty Military Support Project. Modeled after charities such as Make-a-Wish, this program enables troops to submit wish lists and ask for items such as tactical gear, blankets, socks, T-shirts, space heaters, newspapers, sports and fitness equipment, video gaming, computers, musical instruments, phone cards, snacks and personal hygiene supplies. OTA’s distinct difference, compared to other organizations, is they are fulfilling specific requests from military units via their web site. A recent request that OTA received was to provide clothing to troops and civilians who are receiving care at military hospitals and need clothing.
“The size of each order varies,” said Orluk. “We could be serving a battalion of 10,000, a platoon of 12 or anything in between. Regardless of how many soldiers, sailors and aviators we are serving, this program gives troops an opportunity to ask for items that help contribute to their health, welfare and morale.”
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Claycomb remembers when his platoon received its first shipment of care packages in Iraq.
“It was like Christmas in July,” said Claycomb who recently retired as a Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard. “We looked forward to getting the packages because you couldn’t drive to a convenience store in Baghdad for every supply. I can’t tell you enough how much OTA helped to improve the quality of our lives.”
Today, Claycomb is one of OTA’s most passionate volunteers, serving on OTA’s Board of Directors and is a guest speaker at functions and events to promote awareness about OTA.
“OTA has impacted my own life and the lives of many other troops in a big way,” said Claycomb. “I want to do everything I can to help this wonderful organization reach even more troops and veterans.”
OTA is also continuing to help American soldiers once they return home. Its Welcome Home Program supports veterans and their families who need assistance to defray costs associated with establishing a new home. The Welcome Home Kit includes all new essentials such as beds, pots and pans, dishes, laundry supplies, towels and sheets, and cleaning supplies. Veterans can also arrange for transportation to take them to doctor’s appointments, counseling and rehabilitation sessions, and job interviews. To date, OTA has completed over 7,800 projects for veterans through this program.
Yeoman Third Class Derrick Clark said OTA turned his life around when he returned home from active duty.
“OTA’s Welcome Home Program helped me get back on my feet as I adjusted to civilian life. When I found a place to live, OTA provided me with kitchen supplies, toiletries and even paintings. A few years later we lost our home to a fire and OTA stepped in again. They quickly provided bunkbeds, bedding, clothing and toys for my kids. OTA is a real lifesaver for many veterans,” said Clark, who volunteers for The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that connects veterans with under-resourced communities.
As OTA looks to the future, it hopes to expand its services to reach out to even more troops, veterans and their families.
“One of our challenges is securing enough financial support so we can continue our mission of serving our troops,” said Orluk. “Inflation has meant that we are paying more to procure items. Consequently, individuals don’t have as much disposable cash to make large contributions. To counteract that, we have been seeking more long-term financial commitments from companies and corporate sponsors. We are also stretching our purchasing dollar by looking for volume pricing and special discounts since what we provide is all new items and merchandise. What’s more, because we are an all-volunteer organization, every single fundraising dollar we receive is used to help our troops and veterans, instead of paying for administration salaries.”
Orluk added that OTA is preparing to move its headquarters to a new facility in West Mifflin.
“Not only will this new facility give us more room for our administrative and operational needs, but it will also provide space for fundraising events, and a venue to offer classes, job fairs and social gatherings for our veterans to reduce isolation and promote comradery. We are excited about this upcoming move, as it will meet our growing needs for many years to come,” she said.