By Howard Wilkinson
Enquirer staff writer
Every week, somewhere in the heart of Iraq, 15 soldiers think of Cincinnati and smile, even though most of them have never been here.
They are the men of Sgt. Richard LaMonica's S3 platoon, Army 1st Infantry Division, whose boots have been on the ground in Iraq since September and are likely to stay there for some time.
But when mail call comes, the troops perk up despite the heat and danger. They know a package will be there - a big box weighing 30 to 40 pounds - full of easy-to-heat food, hard-to-come-by coffee, popcorn and snacks, hand-held radios to communicate while on patrol and anything else that Rick Hart of Monroe can pack. He has also sent each platoon member a personalized plaque thanking him for his service.
Sgt. Richard LaMonica's S3 platoon, Army 1st Infantry Division, in Iraq
"I am going to probably present them on the Fourth of July so it is meaningful to the men,'' LaMonica wrote Hart.
Hart has also sent a DVD player with DVDs, and T-shirts from a local Hooters restaurant, which the proud platoon members wore in a photo they sent back to Hart.
"The guys anticipate your boxes and run over with them, saying, "We got another box from Rick Hart, can I open it?''' LaMonica wrote in a recent e-mail to Hart. "Thanks for everything.''
Hart, who works in the maintenance department at EMD Chemicals in Norwood, has never met the soldiers he has been sending packages to every week since April.
"I'd like to meet every one of them and shake their hands,'' said Hart, who served in Vietnam with the Marines and later joined the Air Force. "But if I never meet them, it's OK. I don't have to know them personally to know they are serving their country.''
Hart's "adoption'' of the platoon came about, in part, because of his own memories of being a young Marine in Vietnam - lonely, scared and knowing that many of his fellow Americans back home blamed him for a war they opposed.
"I came back to the world and found a lot of misdirected hate aimed at the men who were there just doing their duty,'' said Hart. "My war's long gone, but I can make sure these guys never feel abandoned.''
Hart found LaMonica's platoon through Frankie Mayo, a Delaware woman who organized a nationwide campaign to provide air conditioners for American troops in Iraq.
LaMonica contacted Mayo earlier this year, saying that morale was low, and asked for help.
Mayo forwarded the request to Hart and others at EMD, who began raising money for a campaign to send the hand-held radios they said they needed, along with snacks, coffee and other items. Hart also asked VFW Post 3809 in Middletown, where he is a lifetime member, for money; the VFW responded with several checks.
Doug Lehker of Colerain Township, Hart's co-worker at EMD, said Hart brought him on board early to help with the effort.
"I thought at first he was asking me to help him adopt a soldier,'' Lehker said. "Then I found out it's a whole platoon.''
The biggest fund-raiser came June 26 at the home of Hart and his wife, Linda Lou, in Monroe.
About 60 guests showed up at Hart's basement game room and back yard for a barbecue and a turn at pumping quarters into Hart's collection of seven pinball machines.
They enjoyed music, dancing, door prizes, a cornhole contest. A split-the-pot drawing went to Brian Mertz of Colerain Township. Mertz donated his $365 in winnings to the package effort.
The party raised $1,115 - enough to keep the package effort going for several months, Hart said.
"The party was a complete success,'' Hart e-mailed LaMonica on June 27. "Some crazy things happened like a young man winning the split-the-pot drawing. He gave the money he won back!''
In a recent e-mail to the Enquirer, LaMonica - who is from New Jersey - said none of the men in his platoon is from the Cincinnati area. Only one is from Ohio - Sgt. Jonathon Martin, from near Sandusky.
That, the platoon sergeant said, makes it even more extraordinary that Hart and others in the Cincinnati area would help his men.
"They didn't just settle for sending the radios we asked for; they pledged their support for my platoon and it has not missed a beat since our first e-mail connection,'' LaMonica wrote.
Hart and his friends, LaMonica said, "are an awesome group of people that have unmatched patriotism.''
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