When the grandson of Ed and Maxine Kolbe returned home once from a stint as a Marine in Afghanistan, he mentioned that a lot of military personnel didn't get any mail while they were overseas.
The retired Brookridge couple felt sad about that, Maxine Kolbe recalled this week, and the Kolbes decided to do something about it. That was in 2003.
On Thursday, they headed to the Aviation Branch Post Office in the Airport Industrial Park, south of Brooksville, toting their 2,000th package to the troops. Actually, the 31 boxes they mailed to Afghanistan on Thursday brought the grand total to 2,009.
In the beginning, the Kolbes purchased care package items themselves and footed the postage as well. As the effort grew and became more of a financial burden, they put out a call to other Brookridge residents to contribute goods and cash. Community clubs and individuals responded.
Collected were nonperishable foods; hygiene items; clothing such as underwear, socks and T-shirts; CDs and DVDs; sheets; towels; even pillows. The Brookridge Community Property Owners provided a table in the community center to collect the items.
"There isn't anything (service personnel) don't need," Ed Kolbe, 79, declared.
Initially, the Kolbes gleaned names and addresses of troops from Internet sites devoted to supporting the military overseas. But that became unwieldy, said Maxine, 73, so they have since garnered by word of mouth names supplied by friends and relatives of those deployed.
The Kolbes set out a jar in Brookridge seeking cash donations that would buy specially requested goods and pay for postage.
"We use a flat-rate package, so it's $12.50 per package (for postage), unless it's bigger," said Maxine, "then it's up to $30."
The Kolbes make the post office visit every two weeks, usually delivering 20 to 26 boxes. They make a predelivery appointment.
"People in line would groan when they saw us coming (with so much)," Maxine said. "And we didn't want to hold people up."
Now, postal clerks often usher the couple in the back door. The mailing process — which includes filling out a customs form for every package — usually consumes an hour and a half, Maxine said.
By that time, the Kolbes are well acquainted with every box. Ed first opens the folded mailers and tapes the bottom. He hands the box to Maxine, who fills it, referring to a list of any special requests. Ed brings the box back to his side of the work table, tapes it further and carries it to the finished stack.
"We put a letter in every package, and it has the person's name, our name and our community and other people that help us," Maxine said.
She learned early on that many of the young men in the service are looking for female pen pals, so she now signs the letters, "Grandma and Grandpa."
In this week's mailing, personal notes solicited from community residents also were inserted, the result of an Independence Day request by the Kolbes.
At times over the past seven years, donations have lagged.
"If we really run out of things, we go to Wesley Chapel and Bob Williams," Maxine said.
Williams heads up Support the Troops Inc., which collects food in bulk from manufacturers and distributors, Ed explained. Williams fills the Kolbes' needs.
Also, if there is not enough money for postage, Dee Mills of Masaryktown, founder of Lea's Prayers and Postage, contributes from donations to her effort.
Mills established the fundraiser after her son, Marine Sgt. Lea Mills, was killed in Iraq in 2006. Mills provides postage aid to many local groups sending packages to overseas troops.
The Aviation Branch Post Office, to which the Kolbes deliver their packages, has been renamed the Sgt. Lea Mills Post Office in his memory.
Mail comes to the Kolbes, too, from grateful recipients — letters, e-mails, "phone calls from way over there," said Maxine.
And they get visitors.
"One came from Camp Pendleton in California," said Ed. "He drove all the way.
"We've met families from Zephyrhills, Dade City, Texas. It just shows that the boys really appreciate it."
Not just boys, but a woman from Weeki Wachee as well.
"All we knew was that she was from Florida," Maxine said of Bonnie Robinson.
Robinson, who recently finished her service overseas, had received several of the Kolbes' packages, and once came to offer thanks in person while she was home on leave.
Maxine, noting that Robinson was a grandmother herself, said: "She was the mom for all these kids."
Responding to his wife, Ed said: "You're the mom to all of them."
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]