FLUSHING, N.Y. -- Major deployments of U.S. Army personnel are still continuing, and sometimes those Soldiers deployed live with the separation anxiety that comes with leaving their loved ones back at home. During the holiday when Soldier's and Families are separated the stress of this situation can be increased.
To support those Soldiers who are sacrificing the holidays serving their country overseas; The Freedom Medical Aid Team, an organization of dedicated volunteers from New York Hospital Queens, have made it their mission to never forget those who volunteer to defend the U.S.
The FreeMAT has been calling on local community participation for their 9th annual toy drive to benefit the children of deployed reserve Soldiers from Fort Totten in Queens and other reserve bases in the greater New York region.
FreeMAT members presented nearly 600 toys collected from the local community to Army representatives during a presentation held at NYHQ on Dec. 9. The gifts were gratefully accepted on behalf of the Army by Brig. Gen. Douglas R. Satterfield, deputy commanding general of the 412th Theater Engineer Command, from Vicksburg, Miss.
"It is my honor to accept these toys," said Satterfield. "Of course it is ideal that you're always home for the holidays with your family, and there's nothing that really stresses families more than a service member not being home for a holiday. But we do know their mission is critical for the defense of the free world and America. This toy drive is an example of the community, and family members, who are really bringing a lot of great stuff together for us."
"We want to show the men and women deployed that we do care about their service, and we are taking care of their families," said FreeMAT founder Peter Kwiath, Assistant Supervisor of the EMS Department at NYHQ. "Since its inception, we have collected over 11,000 toys -- all from community involvement. And it is growing bigger and bigger every year."
FreeMAT was first formed in 2002 by NYHQ EMS Emergency Medical Technicians and paramedics who were looking to support the Army personnel who began deploying to the Middle East in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The first toy drive was held in 2003, said Kwiath, and has continued to grow with the support and contributions from the community, as well as the hard work from the volunteers.
Instrumental in the formation of FreeMAT and also attending the presentation was Master Sgt. Chester Marcus, Public Affairs Officer, 77th Sustainment Brigade, from Fort Dix, N.J., who while stationed as the PAO at Fort Totten nine years ago answered Kwiath's call for support.
"I was his first phone call, and I connected him with enough people in the military community to facilitate finding families that could use the toys. I've been doing it ever since," said Marcus. "This is the kind of community outreach that all Soldiers need; something real, something tangible, something that affects an emotional response from a family member. It's a great thing."
FreeMAT is the only large-scale local toy drive that exclusively asks for donations to benefit the children of local Soldiers, said Kwiath. And local troops were on hand to help. Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets from Francis Lewis High School in Queens assisted Soldiers from the 237th Support Maintenance Company, stationed at Fort Totten, to gather up the collected toys from the presentation.
"The toys collected today will be taken back to Fort Totten and then distributed to rear detachments of units deployed, and also units just about to go on deployment." said Staff Sgt. Amee Hernandez-Waites, from the 237th SMC. "This is my fifth year helping out with FreeMAT, and it's always great. It's just a great cause."
According to Kwiath, Soldiers and their families definitely appreciate the efforts made by FreeMAT and the generous contribution from the community, and the positive responses only motivate him to continue driving on with the toy drive.
"The most common response is they don't know how to say thank you," said Kwiath, "When they do say thank you, I say to them, no, thank you. You're the ones protecting our freedom. We're here to just to help you, to tell you that we do care. We appreciate that you are protecting us and our freedom, and we are here to take care of your family while you're overseas."
"Personally, I have six children, and this has always been a big benefit for me because I've been able to say to my kids, 'you're gonna get something for Christmas,'" said Marcus, who just returned from a deployment to Iraq.
Making a difference in a Soldier's life is what strengthens his resolve, said Kwiath, who has vowed to see FreeMAT's mission through until the end.
"I have said it since the beginning, until every last man and woman is back on U.S. soil, I will not stop," he said. "Even though people are coming back from Iraq, which I'm very happy and pleased to hear that, there are still people in Afghanistan. Who knows what the world has to expect in the next year or two. Until we have true peace, we will continue."