In a stuffy room full of sewing machines, about two dozen people spent a recent Saturday afternoon stuffing sleeves of fabric with polymer beads and sewing them shut.
The project was an initiative of the Syracuse Marine Parents, and the sleeves would ultimately end up as what the group calls Neck Kool-Eze, neck coolers that would ultimately be sent as part of care packages to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Strips of fabric are sewn together, filled with polymer beads and sewn up, then shipped overseas. The coolers are soaked in water and the beads retain the water, keeping them wet for hours at a time. The idea is that the wet strips will help keep soldiers in desert climates like Afghanistan and Iraq cool on long, hot treks. They can be tied around the neck or placed under the helmet. Syracuse Marine Parents founder Sharlene Nemitz said the group has been making the coolers for at least five years.
“It’s handmade,” Nemitz said. “It’s kind of a little homey touch. It’s just a cool thing to do.”
The “work bee” on Saturday, March 31, went from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In a good eight-hour span, Nemitz said a group could make as many as 600 to 700 coolers.
“We’ll send them to anyone we’ve got names for,” she said. “We’ll put them in bundles of 10 and put them in a care package that we send out. We’re going to be doing care packages April 21, so we’ll be collecting goods to put in the care packages. We’ll usually just do these in the spring time so it gets there before it gets too hot. Then we’ll do another care package around Christmas time, and we’ll do a stocking to send.”
The care packages are an effort to remind troops that there are people back home who are thinking about them and who are appreciative of the work they’re doing overseas.
“It’s just a way to give a little reminder from home that they’re not forgotten,” Nemitz said. “When we get thank-you notes back, [they say] ‘it’s nice to know that you know that we’re out here, that you haven’t forgotten about us.’ Particularly if we hear about somebody that doesn’t have friends and family that send them care packages, those are the ones that really tug at our heartstrings. Our kids, we send them stuff. It’s those guys and girls out there – nobody really does know they’re there, or they feel that nobody knows they’re there. They get a little sunshine from us.”
The care packages are a regular project the group undertakes, but the group’s main focus is supporting the parents of Marines in harm’s way.
“It’s more of a support for their parents,” Nemitz said. “We do two or more care packages a year, so that’s directed specifically at the troops, and if we knew of a need we would be there. It was intended to be a parent support group. From that came reaching out – feeling the need that we needed to do more for our kids, so we added that in maybe two or so years in that we started doing these other things in.”
Nemitz founded the group in 2004 after her son Nathan left for boot camp.
“My son-in-law was a Marine and had gone through training, but that wasn’t as close,” she said. “It wasn’t the same. When my baby went off, I was scrambling to connect with people. I connected with some online groups and traveled to Hampton, N.H. to connect with people who actually knew how I was feeling, and I was determined I was going to start my own group.”
Originally, the group, which consisted of eight to 10 members, met at Good Golly’s in Central Square. But it soon outgrew the facility. Now it meets at VFW Post 3146 on LeMoyne Avenue in Mattydale. Meetings are held at 6:30 p.m. the third Tuesday of every month.
“We start with the pledge, then we have a time of remembrance. It’s a potluck dinner and everybody brings something to share,” Nemitz said. “We have just kind of a general information meeting because we have a lot of things coming up in terms of fundraising and stuff. And people just kind of talk about what’s going on with their son or daughter. It doesn’t matter what’s going on — if your son just left for boot camp or if he’s headed off to Afghanistan or if he’s been out for two years and is struggling. Everybody, we really have bonded. We know each other’s kids by name and where they are.”
Nemitz, whose son is now stationed at Quantico, Va., said an average of 30 people regularly attend the meetings.
“The faces change, but we seem to stay in that 25 to 30 to 35 range that are here on a monthly basis,” she said. “With that group, there is an intimacy in sharing. We’ve bonded, probably for life, most of us. The Marine Corps is big on family, and we’ve just kind of joined right in.”
That support system has been key to families in times of crisis, like the Schneider family of Baldwinsville, which lost son Kyle to an IED in Afghanistan last July. Kyle’s parents, Lori and Rick, joined Syracuse Marine Parents when Kyle left for boot camp.
“That was tough. It’s always been tough when we lost someone from the Rome area, so that was just a sucker punch to the stomach,” Nemitz said. “I’ll never forget the message on my voice mail from Rick saying, ‘Please call me,’ and I just knew right away. That was a tough time.”
But the group came through to provide support for the family.
“This is an incredible group of people,” Nemitz said. “Tina, Nancy and I went to their home and spent some time with them. Tina was and still is an incredible support to Lori, because she lives very close to her. It was certainly a bonding time for the group. Everybody just as a family would support their family during a loss, we supported each other. Everybody was really incredible. And Rick and Lori have been back — not regularly, but they have been back.”
Nemitz said sacrifices like Kyle Schneider’s, as well as the day-to-day sacrifices made by the sons and daughters of other members of the group and Marines from all over the country, serve as a reminder of how real these battles the nation is fighting are.
“We owe these kids so much,” she said. “It’s humbling to think what our sons and daughters have done. My father did it, but it wasn’t as personal. I wasn’t a part of that. When it’s your own flesh and blood and you’re witnessing it, that’s when it becomes real.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.