When relatives of Utah soldiers serving in Bosnia decided to help the residents of that country, they had no notion how extensive the response would be.
About 50 members of the Utah Army National Guard's 142nd Military Intelligence Battalion are stationed at Eagle Base, near Tuzla, Bosnia. The battalion's linguists are experts in more than 20 languages and have served around the world from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
According to the Guard's annual report for Fiscal Year 2002, the battalion can interrogate prisoners of war, provide counterintelligence efforts and translate intercepted messages.
The contingent in the Balkans is supporting peacekeeping in that war-torn region. While there, they have observed the region's desperate poverty.
Sandra Lofgren, a resident of Weber County whose husband is commander of the Utah detachment, said troops in Bosnia decided to help needy students in a local school. In September, her husband, Capt. Anthony Lofgren, sent her an e-mail request for material to give to the children.
Thinking this would be a good project, Sandra Lofgren contacted Guard family support personnel with the idea, and soon relatives and friends of soldiers were collecting material.
They stacked up boxes containing hygiene products, winter clothes, school material, baby supplies, handmade blankets, hats, gloves, toothbrushes, quilts, hats, gloves and other items for school children and an orphanage. A Bountiful family collected two boxes of children's books, then paid to send them to Bosnia, she said.
Trisha Bello, whose husband, Capt. Craig Bello, also is serving in Bosnia, collected clothing, sweatshirts, toothpaste, crayons, pencils and shoes.
"My family got involved, and everyone just had a certain amount of money they wanted to spend" on the project, Trisha Bello said.
Her uncles, aunts and cousins, her co-workers and friends all began donating and buying items to help a Bosnian school and its students.
"Everyone likes to donate before Christmas," she said. "We ended up with like 10 boxes of stuff."
Sandra Lofgren was getting nervous because so many boxes were stacking up in her home, and shipping them overseas had the potential of costing a bundle. But then at the group's Christmas party, she learned that Hill Air Force Base could ship items overseas for free.
The Hill mail room told her that if the boxes go from one duty position to another, they could go without charge.
She and another officer took the boxes to Hill AFB shortly before Christmas.
When distribution started, the process threatened to get out of control when people in one village "nearly started fighting over the clothes."
Most of the material has yet to be turned over to Bosnians, said her husband. It is temporarily kept in a big storage container.
Contacted by telephone at Eagle Base, Lofgren said a committee has been set up to help distribute the gifts. They want to make sure to choose a multi-ethnic school, so they won't seem to be showing favoritism, he said.
"They're trying to work with the ministry of education over here," he added.
The project is of great benefit, he said, because Bosnia has "a bunch of people . . . who basically have nothing."
Members of the 142nd are glad of the project too. "It gets them involved in a real tangible way" in helping people, Lofgren said. They can see their assistance actually helping people as it happens. This is a change from their main task, to help stabilize the region, and it's refreshing to participate in an effort that has immediate results.
"I think most everybody's pretty enthusiastic about it," he said.
Lofgren doesn't know who started the project, but it began small. "It just snowballed quick," he said.
Back in Utah, family members are glad they could help the people of Bosnia.
"Oh, I think it's great," Sandra Lfgren said. "I was so overwhelmed with the support we got. I sat and bawled when I saw all that stuff come in."