One local man is trying to make a difference in the lives of our deployed service members – one package at a time.
Retiree Tony Johnston is the head of a group calling themselves, “War Beard.” The organization, which is about four years old, started primarily to send care packages to deployed members of the 122nd Fighter Wing, which is a unit of the Indiana Air National Guard, stationed near the Fort Wayne International Airport.
These days, however, the group ships packages anywhere and everywhere they’re able, in order to support service men and women who are deployed around the world.
The name of the group came from Johnston’s son-in-law, Jason Kochenderfer, who decided back then that no one in the family should shave until the men came home from their original deployment; hence, “War Beard.”
“When the 122nd deployed (in late 2014), my son-in-law and daughter said, ‘We should be doing something for these guys. So, that’s how we started,” Johnston said.
After the unit returned home about six months later, the family kind of asked themselves, “What do we do now?” The answer? Keep going, and ship even more packages.
The group eventually turned War Beard into a legal charity, a 501(c)3 and an LLC to make sure the group was entirely legal and that contributions to it can be counted as deductions.
Johnston said the packages they ship usually contain snacks and games to help servicemen and women pass the time and not be quite so homesick. He said he usually aims to include about $45 worth of items in each box, which typically costs about $16 to ship.
“Having been deployed myself,” Johnston reminisced, “it’s nice to get contact with home. When I was overseas, my Mom would send me homemade cookies in one of those old steel coffee cans, and they’d be gone about 10 seconds after I opened the package.
“It’s not so much the contents of what they get; it’s the contact with home and their loved ones.”
Johnston, 55, retired from the 122nd Fighter Wing after 27 years of service. He served in Iraq three times; Saudi Arabia twice; Qatar; Kuwait; and Jordan. These days, he is a volunteer gym teacher on Mondays at St. Joseph-Hessen Cassel, a parochial school for students from pre-Kindergarten to eighth grade.
Students at his school, located at 11521 U.S. Hwy 27, recently made Valentines to send to the service members.
The group is entirely funded through donations, so no one on the organization’s seven-member board has ever taken a single cent for the work they do running it.
War Beard has also been aided in its fundraising over the years by The Green Frog Inn. Each year, the tavern hosts a night when local celebrities bartend, and their tips are donated to the cause.
The tavern, located at 820 Spring Street, also co-sponsored a 5K run with War Beard, with all the proceeds going toward care packages. In fact – according to Johnston — one year, a War Beard member came up with the slogan, “Run Til Your Beard Falls Off,” and donated a slew of fake beards for runners to sport while they jogged the race.
Johnston figures that in the four years they’ve been doing this, the group probably has spent about $34,000 in buying items for the packages and shipping them.
“It’s all done through donations,” Johnston explained. “every penny we’ve ever raised has gone to pay for the items in the packages, or for shipping.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, Johnston notes, the group shipped its 566th and 567th packages to deployed soldiers and airmen.
“I don’t see an end to it,” Johnston said. “As long as there’s people deployed, we’ll be sending care packages.”
For those interested in making a donation to the program, or who have suggestions for those in need of care packages, Johnston suggests visiting the group’s Facebook page (search for War Beard), or contacting them at their mailing address: P.O. Box 183, Hoagland, Indiana 46745.
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