OKOLONA – The City of Okolona has a history of supporting military personnel and soldiers. Long-time resident, Pat Sistrunk, said the city logo, “The Little City that Does Big Things,” is based on one such example.
“During World War II, the town of Okolona sold more war bonds per capita than any other town in the nation,” Sistrunk said.
This year, the town came together once more in support of local and area soldiers, providing 154 active duty personnel in Afghanistan with phone cards to keep them in touch with friends and relatives.
And through the project, retired Sgt. Michael Stafford, acquired some closure to his earlier tour of duty.
Round table discussion
Stafford, 42, was serving with the National Guard in Iraq in 2005 when he was wounded and lost a leg. The Shannon native has close ties with the Okolona community and was part of a group of members of the Okolona Country Club who formed the idea to send phone cards to soliders on active duty.
“I’ve been a member of the Country Club for 20 years,” said Stafford who is a board member and incoming president as well as being an avid golfer. “I just grew up around here and learned on this little nine-hole course.”
After leaving the military, Stafford stayed involved in supporting military personnel and a casual conversation at the club led to something much bigger. The 133rd Engineering Battalion of the Mississippi Army National Guard, which includes the 858th from Okolona, is currently about half-way through a tour in Afghanistan and one of the club members brought up the subject of the soldiers need for phone cards to stay in touch with the folks back home.
“Will Graves is over there,” Stafford said. “He’s the son of one of our members and he was talking about the calling cards. We were just sitting here talking around the table about sending them calling cards.”
The talk got serious when the group started crunching numbers.
“There are 154 on the ground in Bragram from here,” Stafford said. “I started doing the math on the cost of phone cards for each of them.”
The group needed a fundraiser and began setting up a golf tournament at the club and everyone got on board.
“They all went out knocking on doors and businesses to get hole sponsors and fill up the tournament with teams,” Stafford said. “Plus we needed door prizes. I think we went to about every restaurant in Tupelo asking for gift certificates for door prizes.”
Hitting the links
The tournament was held Nov. 11 in recognition of Veteran’s Day and was highly successful. Members of the 288th Sapper unit from Houston posted the colors to begin the four-man scramble and by day’s end, the mission to provide the phone cards was a reality.
“I don’t know when this community has ever come together like they did for the tournament. Everyone pitched in for a great cause,” Stafford said. “We were able to get everyone 200 minutes in minute-per-minute cards. That’s over three hours of calling. I know for my family (during his tour) and for everyone else’s family it’s good to be able to talk.”
The delivery of the cards opened up an opportunity for Stafford to receive some closure from his own tour in Iraq. Through the Troops First foundation, founders Rick Kell and David Ferehty help provide soldiers who left the theatre as Wounded Warriors with services to help with re-entry to society after their service. One of the programs of Troops First is Operation Proper Exit which returns a solider to the area in which he was wounded so he may leave under his own power.
“A lot of guys left the wrong way, on stretchers or medivacs and on morphine,” Stafford said. “This allows them to go back and leave the right way, to walk off, and gives them closure.”
The return of a soldier fallen during active duty also serves to inspire those currently on the ground.
“It motivates the troops,” Stafford said. “The troops there realize you came back to see them, to check on them.”
Stafford had wanted to be part of the program and he got his opportunity this Christmas.
“Kell knew about the tournament and the calling cards,” Stafford said. “He knew we were probably going to mail them and he just said, ‘How would you like to hand deliver them?’ I just jumped on it.”
The trip, orginally scheduled for the Thanksgiving holiday, was cancelled.
“I was depressed about it,” Stafford said. “Then they rescheduled it for Christmas. I was excited. I said, ‘I’ll see my family 51 weeks this year and I can spend time with these people who won’t see their families for Christmas.’”
Although Stafford’s trip did not take him back to Iraq where he was injured, it gave him a chance to attain some closure while bringing happiness to local soliders stationed in Afghanistan.
“Bragram (Airfield) is so big, it was hard to track them down and they didn’t know I was coming,” he said of the local soldiers.
But Stafford did find the unit and the first famliar face he saw was Catherine Cook. They also located Will Graves.
“I told them, the mail is just terrible so I’ll hand deliver these to you,” Stafford said. “This North Mississippi community and the Okolona Country Club are thinking about you. We want you to have a Merry Christmas and get home safe.”