Boxes to Baghdad lifted spirits, he says

When Army Capt. Brian Herzik told his parents what his men could use, the grapevine bore fruit. He thanks all the givers.

Published April 17, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - The Gatorade and Powerade went first.

"It was starting to get really hot" in Baghdad when the shipment arrived last summer, Army Capt. Brian Herzik said.

Beef jerky probably was the second most popular item his troops received from St. Petersburg's Operation Care Package, which also sent trail mix, deodorant, sunscreen, insect repellent, lip balm and telephone cards to those under Herzik's command in the Army's Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, 1st Cavalry Division.

Every one of those soldiers received a box, individually addressed. Each had a personal letter from students at the Hough Campus of the Canterbury School of Florida, where Herzik's mother, Jan, is director.

"They were very excited to get them," Brian Herzik, 31, said in an interview Friday. The men became downright possessive over the goodies.

Herzik is back in the United States, having arrived at Fort Hood, Texas, a month ago. He came to St. Petersburg on Wednesday to visit with his family and to thank supporters who sent correspondence and gifts to him and the other soldiers last spring and during the winter holidays.

Thursday evening at Great Explorations, the children's museum, his family gave a reception so he could meet some of them.

Herzik got to Baghdad last April. Days afterward, two of the soldiers under his command were killed in combat in Sadr City.

In a phone call home, he mentioned some things his men could use. His parents, Dave and Jan Herzik, told some friends, who told their friends. Pretty soon people in St. Petersburg's Junior League, Downtown Rotary, Northeast Exchange Club, First Presbyterian Church and Canterbury mobilized. They wrote checks and donated cash and mailing supplies, purchased the supplies and assembled the boxes.

"I'd like to say thank you for everybody's support," Brian Herzik said Friday. "We don't get much of a chance to say thank you."

A month's duty in Barstow, Calif., just south of Death Valley, prepared him for the desert. The instruction encompassed language barriers, complex role playing, even sandstorms.

"It's the most realistic training you can get," he said.

In Iraq, his troops were involved in traditional infantry and cannon missions, conducting fire support and security and stabilization operations. They slept on aluminum cots inside air-conditioned tents and on barracks floors.

They often helped civilians, providing electrical power, food, toys and even live sheep to Iraqi families who risked their own lives to take the soldiers water. They secured the district administrative hall in Sadr City, where citizens would go "if they had a claim against the U.S.," Herzik said.

Iraqi children tried to sell "DVDs, cigarettes, all kinds of stuff" to the soldiers. Regardless of whether they were successful, the youngsters "always asked for chocolate."

Most people, and especially military veterans, have told him they are "very, very thankful for me and what I did, and what I did for the country."

Herzik says he is sustained by support and prayers. His St. Petersburg visit, he said, was an expression of gratitude.