BORDERLINE NEIGHBORHOOD — Surrounded by piles of boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, toothpaste, granola bars and Sweethearts candies, a group of women opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gathered at a home here earlier this month, putting their feelings aside in order to support the troops overseas.

These women, and a few men, volunteer their time and money every two months to assemble and ship more than 30 care packages to Popeye’s platoon, currently stationed at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Popeye is Sgt. Anthony Krusely, the nephew of Marie McNeal, an Angeleno who in 2007 got some of her friends from Santa Monica and the Westside together to do something nice for the troops, to let them know that there are people who appreciate what they are doing, have love for them and pray for their safe return.

The informal gatherings that often feature music, wine and good food, have grown over the years, with members reaching as far as Hawaii, some unable to physically attend but send checks to help pay for the shipping and purchasing of supplies. One member’s chiropractor in Santa Monica baked cookies as a contribution.

“When I told my nephew that I was thinking of sending more packages, he said some of the guys in the unit say their families don’t believe in the war and aren’t sending them anything,” McNeal said. “I hate that he’s over there, but I have to trust his path. I love him no matter what choices he makes.

“I can’t imagine how it would feel to be away from your family in the midst of a war,” McNeal added. “I keep that in my mind all the time and I want them to know that even if their families aren’t in contact with them, there are people back home who appreciate them and we want them to come back safely.”

Krusely is serving his second tour of duty and has been stationed in Afghanistan for the past 10 months. His unit provides security for high-ranking military officials, as well as assist in rescue missions in the event of a downed aircraft or other incident in which fellow soldiers may be injured. The unit is often put in harm’s way, creating a tense environment for the soldiers.

Krusely, who got the nickname Popeye because when he was little his eyes seemed to pop right out of his head, said his soldiers look forward to receiving the care packages, enjoying the little comforts of home that help them forget, at least for a little while, the dangers they face daily.

“It’s like Christmas when these packages show up,” Krusely said during a phone interview earlier this month from Bagram. “For many of these guys it’s one of the few pieces of mail that they get. It’s a real morale booster and gives the guys a chance to kind of act like kids again, have a little fun and just try and relax as much as possible given the environment and situation we’re in.”

The troops had fun with some Silly String McNeal and company sent a few months back, spraying the fluorescent material on one another like rowdy kids. The Silly String is used to help spot trip wires often attached to bombs. DVDs are popular, mostly comedies to help lighten the mood.

Santa Monica resident Julie Oshin, a close friend of McNeal’s and a member of the care package group since its inception, said the troops also like mac ‘n’ cheese packets that they can add a little water to and set out in the sun to cook. That’s how hot it is in Afghanistan. While she doesn’t have a loved one fighting, Oshin feels closely connected to Popeye’s platoon, having seen pictures and letters sent by the troops to the group, thanking them for sending the treats.

“It brings the war into your living room,” Oshin said. “When I see some of those photos, my heart breaks. Here are people that I don’t even know but now I have this strong connection to by doing something so simple as sending a package.”

Members of the group reach out to companies looking for sponsors, scour grocery stores looking for deals and create their own stockpiles of beef jerky, canned meat, toothbrushes and energy bars. Oshin frequently attends trade shows and will go to other vendors and ask them for extras to put in the care packages. She would love to get more corporate sponsors so that the group can expand its reach. One sponsor is Justin’s Nut Butter, which produces little packages of peanut butter.

Santa Monican Cindy Lambert also participates. While she too is anti-war, she wanted to find a way to give back to the troops, to honor their sacrifice. She finds the gatherings fun and loves the camaraderie.

“We get creative and put fun things in the packages for them,” Lambert said. “We add little personal touches like writing a note or sending them a card, like on Valentine’s Day. It feels good to know that they are grateful for what we send.”

McNeal plans to continue the effort and hopes to expand it to cover other units. To do that, more volunteers are needed to purchase and donate trail mix, magazines and other supplies. Those interested can contact her directly at memcneal@hotmail.com.

“When I first started I didn’t know if people would want to help,” she said. “So far I’ve been blown away by how many people have contributed. People just want to make a difference.”

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