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Locals, businesses keeping up with troops

By Michael Davis

When Jerry Schwendinger found out that someone was trying to set up a golf tournament in Iraq, he felt that he should help out.

Owner of Cotton Fields Golf Club in McDonough, Schwendinger was approached by a civilian, Russell Shattles, who is helping to train what will become the new Iraqi army. Shattles asked if he could sell him any discount golf balls or equipment.

"At first, I just thought he was trying to get started and was going to practice in his backyard," said Schwendinger.

But through conversation, Schwendinger found out that Shattles was planning to hold a tournament in Iraq. Schwendinger then asked Shattles if they had any golf courses in the desert. "He said no, but ?we're building one,'" said Schwendinger.

In an e-mailed letter from Shattles, now in Kirkush, Iraq, he said that Schwendinger overwhelmed him with 200 balls, two bags and over 50 golf clubs. "It was a joy lugging back all of those clubs," he said. Over 60 people on the base have already signed up for the tournament that will be the Friday after Christmas, he said.

According to the United Service Organization, personal gifts like Schwendinger's are the only way to get items to United States troops overseas unless there is a specific destination.

"People are wanting to send gifts to ?any serviceman' but because of security, you've got to have a name (and specific location)," said Mary Louise Austin, president and executive director of USO of Georgia, which has a headquarters inside Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The best way to show support is through a monetary donation to Operation USO Care Package, said Austin. The Care Package program was created to boost troop morale and provide them with items the military has specifically requested, like pre-paid calling cards, disposable cameras, toiletries and sunscreen.

"We also take some supplies that are commercially wrapped," said Austin, such as paper products, individually wrapped baked goods and condiment packets.

Several groups, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars post 6330 in Jonesboro, also make regular trips to the airport to greet troops returning home. "There's a plane coming in every morning," said Leonard Ott, commander of the Jonesboro post. He said the welcome groups give out calling cards and the USO's own Hero Bears?stuffed bears dressed in camouflage.

The USO coordinates troop-welcomes by several different volunteer groups, said Austin, including their own Volunteer Corps of over 1,000.

But with a waiting list of 200 volunteers, Austin said the easiest way to get involved and show support is through donations to the Care Package program.