A few weeks ago, my mom called asking, "Have you heard what Bob Cooper's mom is doing?" Bob Cooper was the baseball coach at my high school. His mom Alleen, whom I'd never met, is a 92-year-old great-grandma. She's also a fiercely independent widow who lives on her own in the Lakewood, California, home where she raised two boys.
"She's writing the troops," my mom says, "during the last two years she's written them more than 2,000 letters." I call Alleen myself and quickly learn this isn't her first foray into writing soldiers. "I started during World War II," she tells me. Now, nearly 70 years later, she's decided "it's time to show my support to the troops of this century." My next phone call is to my boss at CNN who agrees to send a camera crew.
Before we arrive, I've checked into where Alleen's letters are heading – one to a solider so badly burned he's receiving prosthetic ears in a Houston Army hospital, another to a Marine first sergeant who is the father of two girls and preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, and many more to 18, 19 and 20-year-old troops. I wonder what this 92-year-old has to say to all these Marines and soldiers who are worlds away and generations removed.
Alleen answers the door wearing thick bifocal glasses and dressed in red, white and blue - right down to her striped shoelaces. She takes us back to the kitchen table where she'd just been writing a female soldier, and settles behind a plastic tablecloth covered with lined stationery and notes scribbled in her shaky hand. Then she picks up that letter she's been writing and starts to tell us about it. Her topic: her son's growing collection of reusable shopping bags.
I ask Alleen what else she writes about and she throws up her hands dramatically, "Oh my goodness," she says, "I tell everything."
"I write a lot about the weather and just ordinary things that are happening. I tell them I'm a grandma, I tell them about my sons and about my husband who died." Alleen says her letters are never profound - just hearty slices of home for troops far away. She makes them all at least a good four pages long and tucks snippets of comics and headlines into the fat envelopes. Her letters have quickly become the equivalent of comfort food to the troops. And they keep forwarding Alleen the names of other Marines and soldiers to add to her list.
They've also responded with hundreds of personal letters (she keeps every one), with teddy bears and flowers, and even the flag that flew over one of their bases. Alleen says at this point in her life she never expected to receive anything "so elegant, so important as gifts from soldiers."
But her biggest thank-you yet comes on the day our camera crews are there. A Marine first sergeant who's about to head to Afghanistan, whom Alleen has been writing for nearly two years, has come to finally meet Alleen in person. She waits by the door as his car pulls up. "It's him. I know it," she says. First Sgt. David Adams led 300 Marines in Iraq and Alleen wrote to many of them. "It takes a toll on the young kids, sometimes they just need somebody to talk to," Adams tells me. Today as he opens the screen door and reaches out to embrace Alleen she smiles and her voice cracks, "Oh, I'm so glad you came."
Adams says Alleen has become "near and dear to his heart" and reminds him of his own grandmother who passed away. It's a connection many of Alleen's troops say they feel and why Alleen says she keeps writing though her eyes get tired and her hands sore.
But it isn't until we're sitting face-to-face that I fully understand the importance of that connection. For the first time Alleen shares she was a letter writer during yet another conflict. All through the Vietnam war Allean wrote to a single soldier – her younger son Larry. She says from the time he was drafted she was "devastated" and "fearful." Larry survived the war, but he has battled post traumatic stress disorder and serious physical problems ever since.
Alleen's older son Bob has come to the interview to support his mother and says his brother is proud of her efforts. Bob says at the time of Larry's service, "America was kind of divided. And when the men came back they weren't treated like heroes. So I think this was really a big thing for her that somebody starts caring."
Alleen has been showing her support now for more than half a century. "They're our honor" she tells me, "and do you know some of these soldiers don't even get mail from their family and some of them don't even have a family."
It's why she says she'll be at her kitchen table writing as long as there are troops who need her, "when I get so I can't write and can't think good well then I'll have to quit of course but so far I don't have any plans."