Raeann Hempel started writing soldiers in combat zones around the world more than a decade ago, sending packages and words of encouragement to keep up their spirits and to make them aware that people in the United States were aware of the sacrifices these soldiers were making.
“I wanted them to know they weren’t forgotten,” Hempel said last month.
Although involved in many activities in her adopted hometown of Bayonne, this Union City native has been honored for her volunteer work by a host of public officials throughout Hudson County and the state.
In 2010, Hempel received The President’s Volunteer Service Award for her work in providing comfort to military men and women overseas.
State Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack acknowledged her efforts last year. In June, she received the Gold Wing Award from the Soldiers’ Angels organization, and in August, Gov. Christopher Christie commended her longstanding commitment to service in her community.
“Your unwavering dedication and generosity have earned you the notice and respect of your peers,” Christie wrote. “The support you have provided as a state coordinator for Soldier’s Angels for the men and women who safeguard our freedom is truly admirable.”
“Once I started I couldn’t stop.” -- Raeann Hempel
“You have impacted countless lives,” Christie wrote. “Learning of the concern and endeavors of compassionate people like you makes me proud to be a New Jerseyan.”
Hempel said she was inspired to start writing after Dr. Jack Smith was assigned on his first tour in Iraq.
Smith, who joined the medical corps after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, is a local physician who served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Hempel started writing a few letters, and this grew into a full campaign in which she enlisted her sister and others. She helped get donations of goods to send to the soldiers. This became a movement that soon grew into a statewide effort.
As a volunteer, Hempel sent care packages and letters to deployed service members, and the group nationally has supplied the wounded with First Response Packs directly at the Combat Support Hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan and the major military hospital in Germany. The group has also provided care and comfort to those in stateside military and Veterans’ Administration facilities.
The group provides emergency aid to military families in need and has partnered with the Department of Defense to provide voice-controlled/adaptive laptops to about 6,000 severely wounded service members, as well as other services to military people on leave or in emergency situations.
When Smith went overseas, Hempel said she searched for a way to help and found the website for the Soldiers’ Angels.
Hempel got so involved with the effort that she eventually became the captain for the State of New Jersey, and led the effort to send thousands of letters and care packages to the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We also got involved with the veterans’ hospital in East Orange,” she said. “Every couple of months, we send out letters, and we also get Easter things for the children of the troops here in New Jersey.”
Hempel, however, went beyond some of the efforts required as a volunteer, often keeping in touch with soldiers via email and letters, often trying to keep up their spirits during some of the most violent times of their lives.
“Once I started I couldn’t stop,” she said.
Fortunately, of the more than 300 soldiers with whom she has kept in regular contact, all have come through physically unscathed. She still keeps in touch.
Packages she sends include cookies, candy, phone cards, playing cards, toiletries, games, books, sunscreen, writing materials, and other small things soldiers need.
She has collected donations throughout Bayonne, Jersey City, and her original hometown of Union City, where Stack honored her for her service.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.