2010-03-15 / Front Page

Firefighters sending pieces of home to their ‘brother,’ others in the military

By TIM GULLA Ledger Staff Writer tim@gaffneyledger.com

Members of C-Shift at the East Gaffney Fire Station have been collecting items for comfort packages that are being sent overseas in honor of Lance Cpl. J.W. Owensby, who's currently deployed to Afghanistan. Pictured are (left to right) Lt. Jon Grigg, and firefighters Jeremy Broome and Adrian Mathis. (Ledger photo / TIM GULLA) Members of C-Shift at the East Gaffney Fire Station have been collecting items for comfort packages that are being sent overseas in honor of Lance Cpl. J.W. Owensby, who's currently deployed to Afghanistan. Pictured are (left to right) Lt. Jon Grigg, and firefighters Jeremy Broome and Adrian Mathis. (Ledger photo / TIM GULLA) Seated around a table with members of the C-shift at the East Gaffney Fire Station, Velina Owensby smiled as she recalled how her son J.W. practically grew up around the fire station with firefighters who looked after him like big brothers.

“We thought he was going to be a fireman,” Velina said of her son.

“He still will be,” Lt. Jon Grigg of the Gaffney Fire Department quickly replied.

As of Sunday, it had been two weeks since Velina last talked to her son, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. J.W. Owensby.

All she knew was that J.W. was somewhere at a makeshift base in Afghanistan, and wasn’t quite sure when he would next have access to the Internet or a satellite telephone so he could call home.

If J.W. couldn’t be home, however, his adopted brothers on C-Shift wanted to make sure a piece of home could be sent to him.

For the past several weeks, Grigg and other members of the C-Shift at the East Gaffney Fire Station have been collecting items for Velina to mail overseas, not only to J.W. but also to other troops.

“They did this for J.W. and his unit,” Velina said of the firefighters. “But they know some of it will be pulled out for guys that get nothing (from home).”

With the firefighters’ help, Owensby was able to mail out 16 comfort packages, most, but not all of them, going to servicemen and women with local roots. She said her son asked her to include a few extra people on the mailing list, including one Marine from Michigan in J.W.’s troop who never gets anything in the mail.

Piled at the East Gaffney Fire Station were food items such as cases of bagged tuna fish and crackers, packs of candy, drink mixes, toaster pastries, and hygiene products such as eye wash solutions, foot powder, baby wipes, tissues and lip balm.

Why baby wipes? They’re as good as gold when there’s no access to a shower.

Some of the items were the result of out-of-pocket expenditures by the firefighters, others were made possible by donations from Bi-Lo supermarkets in Gaffney and Chesnee, Wal-Mart in Gaffney, and other caring local individuals.

A donation from Mt. Whitaker Baptist Church in Blacksburg, for instance, allowed the firefighters and Velina to include a pocket-sized Bible in the comfort packages, too. One man donated a cash reward he had gotten for referring a customer to a car dealership.

None of those involved expect this to be a onetime deal. Grigg and Owensby hope to keep collecting enough items to send the comfort packages on a monthly basis.

There currently are collection boxes set up for donated goods at Central Baptist Church and money jars set up at Bronco’s Restaurant and Brandy’s Restaurant on North Limestone Street.

Donated items for the packages can be dropped off at the city fire stations, too. Velina can be reached at (864) 838-4827 if you want to help or learn more about what’s needed for the packages.

Grigg is hoping that other fire stations and churches across the county might be willing to lend a hand, too.

J.W. was shipped overseas on Dec. 17, 2009, and Velina currently anticipates that he’ll get to come home in August. While she’s looking forward to that day, she notes there are many other servicemen and women over there, and many yet to be deployed, that could benefit from community support.

A third generation Marine, J.W. had told Grigg years ago of his intent to follow his grandfather and father, “Slick” Owensby, into the Marine Corps. The tradition runs so deep that J.W. carries a Marine Corps emblem in his front pocket — the same emblem once worn by his grandfather and carried by his father, James “Slick,” Owensby, who serves as the chaplain for the East Gaffney Fire Station.

“I’m proud of him,” Grigg said of J.W., who has been like a little brother to the firefighters since he was just 13 years old.

While J.W. can always rely on something in the mail from his mom, Velina hopes to grow the program so other troops know how much they’re loved and appreciated.

“This has been my life (for the past few months),” she said. “It keeps me busy. It keeps me from missing my son so bad.”

While the latest comfort packages were full of things we often take for granted, they also included a special item that simply was missed.

Because tuna fish just isn’t tuna fish without mayonnaise, and because there’s no other mayonnaise for a South Carolinian like Duke’s, Velina said the local troops specifically asked if there was any chance to send some Duke’s overseas.

Luckily, one local military family came through with a case of Duke’s mayonnaise packets.

Getting the items collected is one thing. Getting them shipped overseas is another.

Each comfort package is sent by U.S. Mail. The boxes typically cost $14.50 each to ship, but the U.S. Postal Service gives a $2 discount per box because they’re headed to a soldier. It takes about two weeks to deliver them.

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