TAMPA — At the MacDill Air Force Base gate, Carole L. Eason winds down the window of her minivan. She lets the airman check her military identification, then hands him an envelope.
"Thank you for your service," she says, and continues on her way.
Eason goes on the same simple mission nearly every week. While she runs errands on the base, she gives away gift cards to enlisted military members.
A thank you, she calls it, for keeping this country free.
"They all like to be appreciated," Eason said. "I'm just doing it to honor our servicemen."
Eason has handed out about 200 envelopes so far. On a recent Friday, she had 20 to give away.
At the gas station inside the base, Eason abandons the task of filling her tank and lunges toward the front seat. Hands shaking with haste, she reaches for the stack of pristine white envelopes in her purse.
"There's one right next to me," she says excitedly, looking at the airman at a nearby pump.
Eason, a 73-year-old Valrico resident, is a grateful citizen — just like she writes in neat cursive on the envelopes.
She heard the idea on a conservative talk radio show a few months ago. The host suggested showing appreciation for local military — the ones stationed nearby, not just those serving overseas — with small gift cards.
I can do that, Eason thought. Using her networking connections from working as a tour planner and weight-loss consultant, Eason started collecting gift cards from area businesses.
They're little tokens: $10 gas cards, free pizza vouchers, restaurant discounts, calling cards.
In the base's grocery store, she stops a 36-year-old technical sergeant near the onions and potatoes.
He turns the envelope in his hands and peeks inside.
It looks like he'll be treating his two kids to McDonald's and Buca di Beppo soon, he said.
Eason knows how much even a small present can mean. Her husband, Rod, is a retired Air Force chief master sergeant. Her first husband, a National Guardsman, proposed at a military ball.
She doesn't remember a time in her life when she didn't fly a flag outside her house.
Eason chases a senior airman through the produce section to the deli. "She caught me off-guard," said Vanessa Perkins, 21. "We don't get a lot of thank-yous."
Eason puts donors' business cards into the envelopes, but keeps herself anonymous.
Near the poultry, she finds a technical sergeant. He just returned from technical school in Texas and has three daughters living in Ruskin.
He thinks she's handing him a holiday card. When he opens it, Eason is already down the next aisle, looking for Lysol.
He perks up, searching for her, a big grin on his face.
"It's my lucky day," said Marcel Pestano, 48. "She done made my Christmas."
Eason stares at the sleeves of uniformed airmen. She wants to find the enlisted members, because she knows they make less money than officers.
Maybe, she says, this will encourage them to make a career out of the military to earn good benefits for their families.
Eason remembers the woman in the pharmacy who nearly cried when she saw the Publix gift card. The couple looking at a TV followed her through the store just to thank her again. A few airmen have followed her to the parking lot to give her hugs — even though she's the one who's trying to say thank you.