SAN ANTONIO — The war in Iraq was still in its first year when Patti Patton-Bader’s son, a soldier there, told her that he was one of the few service members he knew who was getting care packages.

The San Antonio Express-News reports Patton knew what to do. She got some of her friends and neighbors to send packages to Staff Sgt. Brandon Varn’s platoon.

That was just the start.

More requests came in from soldiers, combat support hospitals and families of troops who were in the theater of war.

What happened from there explains how Soldiers' Angels evolved into a volunteer network of people in 50 states and 31 countries, all toiling to support troops, their families and veterans of all eras. Patton created a system that matched the needs of troops overseas with people back home wanting to help. A few months later, she was one of thousands of "Angels," as they're now called, supporting troops overseas.

San Antonio-based Soldiers' Angels has sent a total of 851,000 care packages to deployed troops in the years since.

As the holidays near, the nonprofit group, whose slogan is "May No Soldier Go Unloved," is operating on a $22 million annual budget that utilizes only $2 million or so in cash. Everything else consists of in-kind contributions fueled by a volunteer base that tops 20,000 people.

“We just have an amazing group of volunteers, thousands and thousands of volunteers, and so we’re able to do so much with such a large footprint,” said Amy Palmer, Soldiers' Angels president and CEO. “And that alone is important to me because we’re able to do a lot with a little bit of money.”

Soldiers' Angels does more these days than put together care packages for soldiers, veterans and their families. Volunteers gathered 17,000 pounds of candy before Halloween for the group's Treats for Troops campaign. As Thanksgiving approached, volunteers at the group's San Antonio offices off Northeast Loop 410 were among the roughly 1,000 nationwide who were stuffing holiday stockings, planning to send out around 14,000 of them, many to veterans hospitals around the country.

As the U.S. military footprint has shrunk overseas, the group has seen a rising need among veterans here in the United States, particularly the homeless and those on the margins.

Soldiers' Angels is also doing an Adopt-A-Family program for the holidays that is open to relatives of deployed service members and low-income chronically homeless people. The program reaches out to families nationwide, some in San Antonio, by giving them toys and a gift card for a holiday meal.

In 2017, the group provided veterans and families with 120,200 items ranging from blankets and box lunches to hygiene supplies at VA medical facilities. It helped more than 22,100 veterans get food assistance in cities across the nation last year, and is one of the military's largest volunteer networks.

Soldiers' Angels says it is so efficient that 98 cents of every $1 goes to programs. The group maintains a GuideStar Platinum Seal of Transparency and has been named a Top-Rated Nonprofit by GreatNonprofits and a four-star charity from Charity Navigator. It also meets all 20 standards for accountability from the Better Business Bureau.

Care packages for deployed service members have been a Soldiers' Angels trademark from the start, and include snacks, hygiene products, games, and such comfort items as socks and hats. Hygiene kits containing shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, lotion and toothpaste help make veterans' stays at VA hospitals more comfortable.

Those stays can be long and involve multiple appointments. Some veterans may not be able to spend money on cafeteria food while at the VA, which is why Soldiers' Angels provides box lunches consisting of chicken salad and tuna, granola bars, fruit cups and snacks.

"We packed 5,000 of those at the 15th anniversary and they're almost gone," Palmer said. "Those are specifically used for low-income veterans that can't afford to eat in the cafeteria of the hospitals or veterans that are homeless. And so we go through thousands of those a year."

This year, 15,000 box lunches were served. Next year, they'll start offering vouchers to some patients so they can eat in hospital cafeterias, allowing the group to focus more on feeding homeless veterans.

The group will put together kits of basic home essentials — bed covers, pots and pans, dishes, sheets and pillow cases, and shower curtains — for families moving into homes under HUD's Veterans Affairs Subsidized Housing program. They also will provide bus passes and vouchers for veterans who don't have a way to get to their appointments.

Soldiers' Angels boils down its mission to its trademarked motto.

"May no soldier go unloved,

"May no soldier walk alone,

"May no soldier be forgotten,

“Until they all come home.”

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