In 1998, Dan Bowers, an engineering consultant in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, was on a mission. His son-in-law, Chief Master Sergeant Frederick Honeywell, was serving at an Air Force base in Kuwait that had no recreational facilities and no library—and indeed, no books. When Honeywell's wife, Chris, told her father about the problem, Bowers sent some of his own books, as well as donations from others, overseas. It was the first deployment of what eventually became Operation Paperback. Six years later, the nonprofit organization has sent nearly 150,000 books to American troops in more than 30 locations, including Afghani-stan, Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
The force behind Operation Paperback is a platoon of volunteers across the country who collect books and organize fund-raisers or donate money to pay for postage. Bowers says the program has no political agenda and receives no support from the government. "Early on we solicited the state government, the federal government, and the veterans' organizations, and we were met with massive disinterest. So we said, 'Okay, we're going to do it anyhow.'"
Through word of mouth, the organization has cultivated a file of addresses of service members—mostly commanding officers—who have requested books to distribute to their units. Its Web site (operationpaperback.usmilitarysupport.org) includes advice for community groups, book clubs, and individuals across the country who want to start their own book drives, and offers printable shipping labels and postage information. The idea has caught on. Among the volunteers who have organized their own shipments of books for Operation Paperback are members of a Boy Scout troop in Fort Mill, South Carolina; Girl Scouts in Pleasant Valley, New York; a writers group in Eugene, Oregon; and the Florida Jaycees in Hurlburt Field, Florida.
"The response is very gratifying," says Bowers. "Before I started this I was beginning to think that maybe there were only six of us left in the world who still read books. The generation we're sending over there is a video-DVD-PlayStation-type generation, and the reception and the gratitude that they express for the books we send—it gives me some faith."
Kevin Larimer is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.