Not your normal book drive: Supporting overseas troops

Support for troops overseas manifests itself in many forms. Letters, prayers, thoughts, cookies — all have a place in a tent in hostile land.

But B.J. Johnston found a more practical way to support one of his close friends.

Johnston, associate dean of collections and departmental libraries in Olin Library, recently sent a valuable commodity to Kuwait — books.

His close friend Patricia Mance is a major in the Army Reserves 455th Transportation Detachment out of St. Louis, which had been stationed in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, approximately 35 miles from Kuwait City.

Mance’s unit was mobilized Feb. 7 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, trained at Fort Leonard Wood, and arrived in Kuwait March 30. (Mance and her unit just recently returned to the U.S., their tour finished for now.)

When she was mobilized, Mance left behind one of her passions — books, all sizes, shapes and ages — in her library she shares with her husband, Stephen, one of Johnston’s closest friends since childhood. Stephen was also mobilized with his reserve unit, to Heidelberg, Germany, but returned stateside before his wife.

“Through e-mail, I asked (Patricia) what could we do,” Johnston said. “She said the biggest thing over there was books. Most of the people involved in a war have some down time, but by being in a tent in the desert, if you think about it, it’s not like she can check out a jeep and run to town to the library or bars.

“She was often reading three books a week, and she said books were the most important thing.”

Books have always been a big part of Johnston’s life as well, dating back to when he served aboard the USS John F. Kennedy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“I know how great it was just to get mail,” he said. “I mean, send me your junk mail, send anything, it was great. In terms of reading, I always liked books and liked to read, but I was fortunate to be on a ship that had a library, which was one of the nice things about an aircraft carrier. So I definitely had some sensitivity to her situation.”

After hearing the request for books, Johnston formulated a plan and asked other library employees to pass along any books they were looking to get rid of.

The resulting response almost got out of hand.

“It was amazing,” Johnston said. “People came out of the woodwork with books. I don’t know everyone who donated, but we ended up with about five big boxes of books. Every day I’d come and there’d be a grocery bag of paperbacks. We have a book reviewer who gets galley copies, and those would be passed along.

“People who work here tend to be book readers. We shipped out several hundred paperbacks, and I still have some books remaining. The support from the library staff in helping pull this all together was amazing.”

When the books arrived, Mance said it was like Christmas, Easter and Halloween all rolled into one.

“We have a couple of areas where we just place the books on tables and whoever comes by first gets first dibs,” she said via e-mail while still in Kuwait. “When they are finished with them, they just bring them back to where they found them or pass them on to their friends. They go like hotcakes!

“When the shipment arrived, it was like kids in candy store. Everybody in my immediate office gathered around and wanted to see first before I put them out for anyone to grab.”

Mance is a procuring contracting officer assigned to the Southwest Asia Contracting Command as part of the Principle Assistant Responsible for Contracting (PARC) Office. As such, she holds a $10 million warrant that allows her to enter into contracts for the U.S. government up to that dollar amount.

Her main responsibility is to award and administer contracts to provide heavy lifting equipment for the movement of cargo and personnel both in and around Kuwait and Iraq. These contracts enable the United States to deploy, sustain and redeploy allied forces in the theater of operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Clearly, then, a few lighthearted books helped break the monotony of daily exercising, endless sand and pressures of the job.

Now, though, she is back in her house with her library (officially a spare bedroom), with boxes upon boxes of books. And instead of looking out for mysterious people with bad intent, she can sit back in the comfort of her own home and read about them.

“I have about 60 copier boxes full of hardback books in our extra bedroom,” she said. “Most of my collection consists of murder-mysteries, but nothing really heavy.”

Which, after what she’s been through the past 10 months, is just about the right pace.

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