LAFAYETTE -- When John Wintersteen started collecting snacks, toiletries and other necessities for Marines serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, he never expected to take the volunteer mission as far as he did.
On Tuesday, the 74-year-old Danville man and a dedicated crew of helpers at the Lafayette Veterans Memorial Center, marked 10 years of operating Project Marine Care, which shipped 122,000 pounds of care packages -- more than 8,000 boxes -- overseas. Wintersteen has decided to end the program in order to diversify his volunteering, but said any donated items will still be forwarded to another organization.
"I didn't even have a goal in mind," Wintersteen said about launching the program in 2004, more than a year into the war in Afghanistan. "I just said, 'Let's try it and see what happens.' "
Wintersteen, who served in the Marine Corps from 1959 to 1963, was driven by concern that troops struggled to obtain basic provisions while the country was fighting two wars simultaneously.
"Especially infantry guys -- they don't have access to the PX that often," he said. "The government should do more."
After getting in touch with Marines in Pennsylvania and North Carolina that had mailing addresses for more than 5,000 troops, Wintersteen began developing his own lists and collecting donations at the veterans hall and other spots throughout Contra Costa County, including Lafayette City Hall. He also started getting checks to help buy more items or pay for shipping, the flat rate for which is $8.95 per box for military.
Once a month, about 10 volunteers, many from Marine Corps League Mt. Diablo Detachment 942 based in Lafayette, would help Wintersteen pack boxes full of everything from deodorant to socks to flashlights before whisking the packages off to be shipped. About three-quarters of the boxes went to Marines, though some were sent to troops in other branches.
The boxes typically contained notes of support, as well as post cards so troops could write back a message. Many did, offering their thanks.
"When you are over there and you receive letters form home, it's nice to know who it's coming from," said volunteer Mike Feddersen of Concord. "It must bolster your morale 100 percent."
Feddersen, who served in the corps from 1962-66, said his favorite part of helping out was arriving at the post office.
"I had many people stop and ask me, 'Are these for the troops overseas?" he said. "People would dig in their wallets to help pay for the shipping."
Danny Stranahan, a former Alameda County resident and 14-year veteran, also helped package boxes before he left to serve six months in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2008. While there, he received a number of boxes from Project Marine Care, the most useful items being hard candy, cigars, beef jerky, toothbrushes and hot chocolate powder.
"It was great because a lot of your Marines don't receive stuff from people," he said. "When you got something, there was always enough for everybody on your team."
Wintersteen said any items collected from now on will be given to the Blue Star Moms to distribute. Meanwhile, Wintersteen said he intends to increase his volunteer time with the San Ramon-based Sentinels of Freedom, a group that works to provide financial and career support for veterans who are severely wounded.