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Operation Turbo sends ‘boxes of home’ to troops overseas

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Operation Turbo began with an ambitious objective: to provide notes of gratitude to all 350 souls aboard the USS Stout. That’s all it was ever supposed to be, said Dyan Zurick Smith, founder of the nonprofit and a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington. Instead, the charity has only grown. Just last year, Operation Turbo donors and volunteers sent 1,758 "boxes of home" to service members deployed around the world.

It all began in 2010 when Smith and her husband, Jeffrey, went to Norfolk to visit their niece, Heather, who was about to ship out on the USS Stout. As Heather gave them a tour of the ship, she mentioned that many of her fellow sailors rarely receive packages or mail. As they drove home the next day, Smith couldn’t stop thinking about all the men and women serving their country without support from back home. So she decided to do something about it.

Smith, then a full-time hairdresser, asked her clients, neighbors, family and friends to write letters. "If everyone writes one, we can do this," she told them. She decided to name the project after Heather. "(She) was responsible for the gas turbine engines on the ship and they called her Turbo and so I thought, OK we’ll call it Operation Turbo."

In 2012, Smith heard about a friend of Heather’s who was stationed in Afghanistan. The friend and her unit learned that instead of being home for Christmas, their deployment was being extended. "I can’t imagine planning to be home for the holidays and then finding out that's not happening," said Smith. "We had three weeks to send them a bunch of Christmas decorations, Christmas candy and all kinds of stuff to just try to make them feel a little better."

Operation Turbo really started to take off when it became a registered nonprofit in 2014, said Smith. News of the organization spread primarily through word of mouth. Military chaplains, spouses, parents and service members requested boxes be sent to troops. "The first chaplain that we knew was Father Luke Dundon who was at St. Philip (Church) in Falls Church, and we supported two of his deployments," said Smith.

Today, Smith’s basement is filled with boxes stamped with the Operation Turbo logo and lots of containers of supplies — jars of peanut butter, hard candies, popcorn, condiments and more. What they send in the "boxes of home" breaks down into three categories: protein, such as trail mix and beef jerky; personal care items, with different products for men and women; and treats such as fruit leather and brownie brittle.

"One of the things I’ve always strived for is the quality of the things that go in our boxes. We probably put close to 50 items in each box," she said. Jeffrey, in addition to handling the finances and the website, helps with the heavy lifting, said Smith. Volunteers pack the boxes and donate money and food. St. Philip parishioners often donate supplies and the St. Thomas More Cathedral School recently held a collection drive.

Smith loves seeing photos of the men and women in uniform holding their boxes. "When they’re deployed, they work six to seven days a week," she said. "When they take the time out of their busy deployment to either write a note, send an email or to snap some pictures and then send them to us, that to me means everything because they could be taking that time to do something for themselves. That’s my motivation to keep going."

Smith said she relies on prayer to run the charity, especially when she gets an order for hundreds of boxes. Running Operation Turbo impacted her faith in unexpected ways. "I had some hiccups early in our marriage with losses that made me stray away from the church for a while. I was angry at God," she said. "This has really brought me back. It has strengthened my faith in so many ways (and) it has also restored my faith in humanity many times over."

The many people involved with Operation Turbo helped her accomplish what she hoped to do in the beginning — make service members feel appreciated. She said the one thing she hears consistently is, "Thank you for not forgetting about us and what we’re doing."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021