This story, previously published on Columbia Patch, has been selected as today's Greatest Person of the Day feature on the Huffington Post. For other Greatest Person features, see the Huffington Post page.
Receiving a package from home loaded with treats when you’re thousands of miles away can mean a lot to a soldier, especially if it contains good old American Spam -- the kind you eat, not the kind you delete.
Don Downer, 82, known as the "Spam czar," has sent more than 1,400 such packages to U.S. troops deployed overseas. He was honored recently at Howard County’s Volunteer of the Year award ceremony as a result.
“It only seemed fitting for all he has done to support our country's soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines,” said county spokeswoman Alexandra King of Downer's Patriot Award. “It truly shows the amazing human and patriotic spirit Mr. Downer embodies.”
Vivian Bailey said she nominated Downer for the award after visiting his Long Reach home in early 2009. Bailey is a WWII veteran who served as a first lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps. She also sends care packages to troops serving abroad but fills hers with homemade cookies.
She said she was impressed with the amount of time and money Downer invested in his care packages.
“When I realized the massive amount of packages he was sending, I thought that he deserved some special recognition,” she said.
Comforts Include Spam
Downer has been sending care packages since 2008, filling them with snacks like candy and chips as well as other items such as books and wool hats. His trademark? Inside every one is a can of Spam, the iconic low-cost canned meat product made in America since the late 1940s.
Downer joined the Marine Corps in 1946 after dropping out of his high school, Burgettstown, near Pittsburgh, a year early. After being trained as a radio technician, he was stationed at Tsingtao, China. At the time, he was the youngest sergeant in the Marine Corps, at 18 years, 9 months.
While Downer was stationed in China, his mother would send him care packages containing a few comforts from home, such as chocolate chip cookies. Also wrapped carefully inside every package was a can of Spam.
In 1952, Downer was honorably discharged from the Marines and a few years later married his high school sweetheart, Elsie Trosky. The two made their home in Columbia, and over the next 30 years raised five daughters.
Nearly Moved to Tears by a Grateful Marine
Downer's wife died in 2008 and the former soldier said he needed something to fill the void left in her absence.
He decided to start mailing care packages to a neighbor who was serving in Iraq at the time and his network of contacts has grown since then.
Downer finds troops by making requests to commanders for names of servicemen and women who rarely or never receive care packages from home.
One such recipient was Marine Specialist David Webb III with Delta Company fourth battalion, who wrote Downer in April 2010 after he received a package from the Spam czar.
“I don’t have anyone sending me anything, so whenever something as simple and thoughtful as a knit cap with M&Ms is given, it really brightens up my day and I am very grateful for that, sir,” wrote Webb, from Florida.
Downer said he was nearly moved to tears.
Since he first started sending out care packages, Downer has received hundreds of thank you letters from troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“They take time out from fighting a war to respond,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”
Stocking the Spam Room
Downer said he makes two or three trips a week to Costco to keep "the commissary" — the room in his house devoted to care packages — well stocked.
To date, he has spent over $50,000 of his own money on his project.
“No space goes unused,” said Downer, as he packed bags of microwave popcorn, sleeves of Oreos and other snack items into a small postal box. After the box is filled, he stuffs individually wrapped candies and Slim Jims into the remaining spaces.
Nestled in the center is the can of Spam, along with a personal note. He said he always includes a little humor for the recipient, jokingly referring to the conflict zone as ‘Afghani-Spam.’
For Soldiers, the Packages are a ‘Snapshot of Home’
Steve Rice is the Battalion Sergeant Major for 1st Battalion, 8th Marines and has been serving for over 20 years. He said in an e-mail that his unit was stationed in Afghanistan from August 2010 to April 2011 and started receiving packages from Downer in November.
Rice said that packages from home are special to Marines deployed overseas, especially those facing combat on a daily basis.
“When my Marines and sailors received packages from Don...the smiles from ear to ear were indescribable,” he wrote. “When you are on a four-to-six hour combat patrol, not knowing if the next step is your last...when you go weeks, if not months without a shower...and you return to your Patrol Base to find a package from a former Marine....it's one of the greatest feelings in the world.”
He explained that Downer’s packages are like a snapshot of home and even a can of Spam is a welcome reminder of who they are, Americans.
“It makes you have that proud, patriotic feeling when you see items from home,” he wrote.
To read more on Don Downer and his efforts to support troops abroad, visit GoDonGo.com.