SPRING HILL — While Larry Kidwell served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, he received only one package: a birthday cake from his mother that took a month to arrive.
Though the cake was moldy and mushy, Kidwell and his peers dug in and ate the whole thing.
Kidwell's wife, Linda, who was not married to him when he served from 1965 to 1986, said, "I don't want these guys (in Iraq and Afghanistan) to come back like my husband."
In addition to feeling forgotten and abandoned at the time, Larry Kidwell suffers still from severe depression from his service experience.
To make good on their pledge to make sure current service personnel are not forgotten, the Kidwells have established Gifts from Home Inc., a nonprofit corporation that is filling requests for everything from hygiene items and packaged treats to logo-emblazoned T-shirts and games.
Linda Kidwell has gathered from friends, churches and service organizations the names of military personnel on the front lines to receive the local largesse.
"There are 65,000 guys at one forward base," she said. "They can't go buy the items they need in the face of the enemy fire. That's why I basically stick to ones on the front lines."
She has sent 400 boxes since November.
Recently, Linda Kidwell, 58, went shopping with $480 in her purse, the proceeds from a benefit fishing tournament in Tarpon Springs organized by Mark Decsaro with Southwest Pasco Fishermen.
With request lists from the military personnel, she bought popcorn, beef jerky, peanut butter, crackers, Cracker Jack, chewing gum, cheese snacks, Pop Tarts, Teddy Grahams, packaged chicken and tuna salad with crackers, fruit snacks, trail mix, cookies, canned hot tamales and other items.
In other aisles, Kidwell scooped up balloons, yo-yos, a paddle ball and a Slinky, hand sanitizers and wipes. She figures the $480 netted her enough goods to fill about 40 more boxes.
In the past she's sent coffee, creamer, sugar, insect spray, dominoes, and model planes and cars to build, plus glue and paint for modelmaking.
She asked a recipient if the models might be for kids overseas. No, they were for the troops.
"It's fun things that they like," she said, adding that they really appreciate T-shirts and hats bearing logos of businesses back home. She would appreciate more donations of them since they are a bit pricey for her all-volunteer budget.
She takes no pay from the organization. All donations go to troop gifts and postage.
The boxes also have included soccer balls that the military gives to local children, plus Beanie Babies and small toys.
Neighbors Bonnie Maier baked 1,000 cookies; Betty Johnson stitched up some 80 plastic and canvas crosses so that every box includes a prayer, and Kidwell sewed some 100 cool-neck scarves.
She also includes a letter with every box.
"I try to get on a personal level with these guys," Kidwell said.
Through churches and word of mouth, she has gathered names of troops with requests.
"Sixty-five guys have written for an item, and I don't have enough to fill 65 boxes," Kidwell said last week.
Big contributors to the Kidwells' effort have included Kateri Karish, who donated "boxes upon boxes" of hot sauce from a home-based business she is closing; Sue Dixon, who gave Avon skin care products; Bob Vallari and Bob Dubois, who have solicited donations; and Pat Johnson, who has helped pack boxes. Dee Mills' organization, Lea's Prayers and Postage of Masaryktown, is contributing postage.
The community will have an opportunity to contribute to the effort at the fundraising dinner dance at 6 p.m. Saturday at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10209.
Three-time Golden Gloves boxing champion Hector "Macho" Camacho will attend, and other celebrities have been invited.
Parade Wholesale has donated 500 pounds of pork tenderloin. Murphy's Market is donating vegetables.
Crystal Jeep in Spring Hill has given a large cash donation. Sears is providing a sizable gift certificate for the raffle. A&A liquors is supplying a raffle basket.
The only thing that has Kidwell a bit worried is the dessert.
"I've never baked a cake for 200 before," she said.
She would appreciate help from any cake bakers who want to come to her aid.
A former unit secretary at Oak Hill Hospital who left the job to care for her disabled 59-year-old husband, Linda Kidwell said she simply wants service personnel to be able to come home and "say America was there for them."
"I want to uplift them a little bit, bring a little of home to them."
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.