Eric Washington, a veteran of the Marine Corps, works in MVP at Texas Tech.
Kyra and Eric Washington were approaching the second Christmas of their marriage when she sent him a cryptic email: Don't go pick up the mail alone.
Eric, a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, found out the meaning of that warning when the soldier who picked up the platoon's mail in a seven-ton military truck returned to their base and told Eric he had a number of boxes – so many he didn't bring them all over.
“I was like, ‘What do you mean? Too many to carry?'” Eric said. “We went over there. It must have been 10, 15 boxes. I didn't know what they were, but I saw there was just a ton of them, so we had to get a working party together to go over and carry all my packages back.”
Eric spent four years in the Marine Corps before returning to Texas and enrolling as a student at Texas Tech University. Almost four years later he's six months from graduating and working works as a recruitment and outreach specialist for Military & Veterans Programs, helping other veterans adjust to civilian life. The Washingtons' first child, a boy, is on the way. And Eric and Kyra still tell the story of the Christmas cookies.
The packages – 14 priority mail boxes – were packed to their edges with Kyra's Christmas present: homemade cookies. More than 2,000 of them, in fact, baked by her, their families and friends, the high school students whose home economics class Kyra was substitute teaching and basically all of their hometown of Muleshoe.
Eric was floored. Kyra was thrilled. Eric's Marine buddies loved the idea. And 2,000 Christmas cookies from a little Texas town brought a little cheer to wartorn Afghanistan too, when the Marines, including a Navy corpsman dressed up as Santa Claus, and Eric's unit passed out hundreds of cookies to the local villagers.
“We were just giving those cookies out to all the kids in the villages,” he said. “You could say Muleshoe supplied some humanitarian rations in the form of Christmas cookies.”
Arriving at Christmas 2011
Eric was 19 when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He spent four years in the military, deploying once to South America for a four-and-a-half-month training exercise and once to Afghanistan for seven months.
“I always tell people I joined the military because I didn't know what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be, but I joined the Marines because I knew I wanted to do the hardest and best of my options,” Eric said.
He's since learned being a Marine isn't the hardest job in the military – that looks different for every person – but it certainly wasn't easy. Being in a country with hostile tendencies toward the United States and its emissaries wasn't always safe.
“At first it's really scary, then you get used to things that used to be scary,” he said. “The majority of the time it's mundane and boring things interlaced with really exciting, scary things.”
A year into his service, he and Kyra got married. They grew up together in Muleshoe and had been friends for years. When he deployed out of San Diego, so did many of his friends, and their wives – Kyra's friends – returned to their homes. She did the same, living with her sister and substitute teaching.
As Christmas approached, Eric told his wife not to get him anything. His quarters were tiny, he didn't want to have to pack it back home and it just didn't seem worth it. Kyra, still almost a newlywed, wanted to send her husband something. She settled on a holiday favorite, figuring Christmas cookies wouldn't need to be packed or stored.
Then she thought, since she was sending a package of cookies, why not see if his mom wanted to send a few? And since they'd moved from one box to two, why not see if the rest of their families wanted to send a dozen? Plus, the home economics students she was teaching were making cookies as part of their class. Why not include those?
Kyra's Photo Gallery
“Other people heard about it, they announced it at our church, emails got sent around our school and before I knew it the whole town of Muleshoe wanted to send him cookies,” Kyra said.
And they did – more than 2,000 homemade cookies, many with notes from the bakers. Some of them knew Kyra, some of them knew Eric, all of them knew the two families, knew Eric was serving and wanted to send a little something.
Eric's mom, Lynda, and Kyra spent two days packaging the cookies. Each had to be individually wrapped and put into vacuum-sealed bags. They included a slice of bread in each bag to keep the cookies from drying out. Then they packed up the boxes and took over a counter at their local post office. Several days later they were in Afghanistan being searched for contraband, an image about which Eric laughed as he imagined soldiers wondering why this one FOB (forward operating base) was getting so many cookies sent to it. Then they were at his base, each a reminder of his home.
“That was cool to see the people who sent ‘em,” Eric said. “Some of them I didn't know who they were, which was even cooler.”
Iced and frosted humanitarian rations
The cookies were passed around among the Marines, but the number of cookies Muleshoe provided exceeded even what the Marines could eat. So they shared. U.S. soldiers routinely take food rations to the Afghan villages to build rapport with the locals. The humanitarian rations they passed out were nutritious but not usually all that tasty.
This time was different.
They didn't hand out the Christmas-themed cookies; the village elders would have seen that as a sign of disrespect. Those the Marines ate themselves. But the other cookies went into the eager hands of children who didn't get many sweet treats.
That wasn't what Lynda, Kyra and most of the Muleshoe bakers had in mind, Kyra said, but she loved how it turned out. She made sure her husband had a Christmas surprise and they provided humanitarian rations to the people of Afghanistan.
“It did a lot more good than we expected,” she said.
Eric agreed. His only regret was he was never sure their interpreter quite got across the origin of these cookies – that they came all the way from a rural agricultural town in America, not much different in some ways from the rural agricultural villages in Afghanistan.
“I think the cookies worked well,” Eric said. “That seemed appropriate, to give out cookies to children at Christmastime.”