October 4, 2010

A Mile in Their Boots

Kelly Merchant, left, and Amy Boynton with the boots that inspired a
 new support network, Walk A Mile in Their Boots.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRYKelly Merchant draped the worn, weathered camel-colored boots around her neck, the weight of their significance impossible to measure – except for the intensity in her blue-green eyes as she spoke to the Saturday afternoon crowd at the Halcyon Club.
Her two-page speech was supposed to be  about the need for a renewed sense of urgency in supporting deployed troops and what, in her estimation, has been lost in spirit in the nine years since America showed its stripes following 9/11. She prepared it to keep her on track. Within minutes, she crumpled the pages and tossed them on the floor.
Her heart was leading her in a different direction.
“There's something wrong. We aren't holding up our end of the bargain. It's like people have blinders on. Our walk today down Broadway started as a simple idea, to remind people that every day there are more than 300,000 servicemen and women over there, fighting a war, loaded down with 120-pounds of gear, walking for miles upon miles in the desert heat, doing their job and keeping us safe, leaving their families behind so we don't have to leave the comfort of our leather couches and big screen TVs,” said Merchant. “We just wanted people to walk a mile in their boots.”
That singular idea was what led Merchant and Boynton to join forces and establish a Derry-based non-profit civilian support network, Walk A Mile In Their Boots, which became official in August. Within weeks of getting their 501c3 approval on paper, the women were already organizing their first fundraising event, Saturday's Walk A Mile In Their Boots walkathon.
Merchant and Boynton show matching
 tattoos of their group's logo.
Merchant said she was personally inspired by a friend and wounded combat veteran, William Kohler, who gave Merchant his boots as a symbol for the cause.
The group's mission is to be the support network for existing support networks. They are committed to finding existing organizations that are struggling and inject them with renewed support, energy and resources, to keep them going strong.
Out of the gate, they have adopted two local groups with very different goals: the Pease Greeters, a tireless volunteer organization that shows up at Pease International Tradeport whenever troops are arriving or deploying, to cheer them on, buy them a cup of coffee and make sure they feel appreciated; and New Hampshire Operation Military Kids, a volunteer outreach based at University of New Hampshire, that makes sure the 4,000-plus children of New Hampshire deployed military are not forgotten.
About 75 walkers showed up Saturday and formed a convoy for the one-mile loop along the town's main drag Saturday. Merchant said they had no idea how many people would show up, beyond the 15 who preregistered. But supporters kept coming, including half a dozen from the Londonderry-based 94th Military Police Company. One of their ranks heard about the walk, through a friend, said Master Sgt. Larry Gray.
About 120 from their unit are currently deployed in Baghdad, doing police transition training.
“We heard about this walk and thought it sounded like a great cause,” said Gray. “We even wore all our gear, in case anyone wanted to try it on to see how it feels.”
Merchant and Boynton encouraged walkers to wear boots instead of sneakers or athletic shoes, a symbolic nod to the organization and the burden all U.S. servicemen and women take on from the minute their boots hit the ground.
In preparing for the launch of their organization, Merchant and Boynton did some leg work, spending some time as Pease Greeters and keeping vigil with VFW Post 1617 as they held a 24-hour POW-MIA remembrance ceremony at McGregor Park two weeks ago.
I met these girls at the vigil and I was talking to them about how the Ladies Auxiliary is working hard to make care packages for a 120-member unit, and they decided to adopt us,” said Dot Mattson.
The rest of the story is that, in addition to sending holiday care packages to 120 servicemen and women, the 25-member auxiliary is also rallying to replace a shipment of care packages destroyed by an improvised explosive device.
Even though the packages that were blown up weren't from us, one of our members said it was her nephew's unit that was transporting the packages. Thank god no one was hurt, but we felt like we wanted to replace those items. We are only 25 women, and so having some help from Kelly and Amy – wow, I can't tell you how much that means to us,” Mattson said.
In conjunction with Saturday's walk, a collection box was set up for the Ladies Auxiliary care package drive, which was left overflowing with all kinds of requested items, including beef jerky, boxes of macaroni and cheese, disposable razors, Christmas decorations and foot powder.
After I heard about all that the Ladies Auxiliary was trying to do, we couldn't say no,” said Merchant.
Also on hand during Saturday's event was Karen Mosher of Stratham, a local point person for the national Adopt-A-Soldier program, which matches civilian pen pals with servicemen.
We are just a couple of moms who are grateful for all that our military men and women do. We wanted to pay it forward. We felt like people needed to be reminded that our job, as citizens, is to support the troops. There are already a lot of great organizations out there, doing the work, but they need help. Everyone can write a letter to a serviceman. Everyone can donate a box of mac-and-cheese. Everyone should take a minute from their comfortable lives and think about what our servicemen and women have sacrificed,” Merchant said. “It's pretty simple.”

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