What started as civilian Aaron Negherbon’s simple gesture—a gift package to a soldier friend—has turned into a crucial life-saving effort. After learning about the everyday needs faced by active-duty service men and women, Negherbon launched TroopsDirect, an organization that fulfills requests directly from the troops for things like gun lubricant, tourniquets, gloves, and helmets. We interviewed Negherbon, who has been responsible for placing 700,000 pounds of requested supplies directly into the hands of forward-deployed soldiers since 2010.
Tell us about your inspiration for launching TroopsDirect. Did you face any major obstacles in getting the organization up and running?
Aaron Negherbon: The idea for Troops Direct started after I sent a friend of mine, a Marine Corp company commander who was serving overseas, some care packages of general things he needed. That was when I learned our troops weren’t always issued some of the main staples I thought were readily accessible. Like most people I just assumed that items such as stretchers, gloves, communications equipment and gun lubricant were always available. But the more stories I heard about what the troops didn’t have the more I knew I had to do something to help.
I definitely faced some obstacles when I decided to create Troops Direct. I’d never been in the military so I didn’t really understand the hierarchy or processes and procedures in place when it came to supplies. I’d also never run a non-profit before which is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be. Of course, when launching something new, you have to deal with the naysayers telling you that something won’t work and can’t be successful. I was able to overcome those obstacles in the way most people who follow their passions and succeed do—tenacity and desire can turn roadblocks into speed bumps.
What does the standard requisition process look like for troops, and why is it so often ineffective? How long does it generally take for the military to respond to these requests?
AN: Given the size and complexity of the military the standard requisition process is laden with paperwork and bureaucracy. Before a deployment, many stateside supply officers will put in requests for what they need given the budget they have to work with. And then they either get everything or some of what they asked for.
It’s a different story when overseas. You can be in a remote environment and not know what, if anything, is available for a mission. Successfully shipping supplies often presents a completely different set of challenges. Stateside supplies can be received in a day, week or a month depending on the deployment. When troops are overseas it can often take many months if it happens at all. When circumstances are fluid, what may be needed next week isn’t necessarily what will be needed months down the road.
What kinds of supplies does TroopsDirect provide to service members, and what are the most common requests TroopsDirect receives?
AN: Troops Direct is unique in that we don’t send care packages consisting of the “comforts of home” to help morale. We’re the only organization in the nation that responds in real time to operational and medical supply requests that come directly from forward-deployed troops.
The requests cover the gamut, but lately we’ve been seeing an increase in a need for helmets, body armor, communication equipment and medical kits. Some are almost always in demand, like gun lubricant, but others can be surprising. Recently we shipped a large order of hair dye, the kind you’d buy at the drugstore. It turns out the guys on the ground who were trying to blend in with the local population as part of their mission were standing out if they had red or blonde hair.
How do troops go about requesting assistance from TroopsDirect?
AN: The Troops can request assistance by simply going to TroopsDirect.org/requests and stating what they need. We’ve also established relationships within the military where we may just interface with them directly through satellite phone or even secure email.
Do you have a favorite story about fulfilling a request from service members?
AN: One of the most fulfilling parts of my work is receiving notes of thanks from the troops we’ve serviced. The appreciation is so genuine and inspires us to keep doing everything we can to help. But there are some stories that stand out.
There was a Special Operations unit in Afghanistan and the generator they used to power everything on their small, remote base broke down. They went through the typical supply chain and were told the parts wouldn’t be available for about a year. One of the team members contacted us and we were able to source the exact same parts from Europe. They were shipped to us, we turned it around immediately and the Special Ops team was back up and running in a week.
Can you tell us how TroopsDirect delivers shipments to remote locations, and what types of obstacles exist in ensuring the deliveries?
AN: Our shipments are primarily done through the United States Postal Service as they are the only carrier able to deliver to the APO, FPO and DOP military addresses overseas. They also do a great job. We will sometimes use some of the other carriers if a shipment is going to an overseas embassy or stateside in advance of deployment.
We’ve also received extraordinary support from the American Trucking Association who will often allow us to load supplies on trucks that have some free space and they will deliver at no cost to us. This isn’t something they have to do and speaks to their commitment to the well-being of our troops.
We’ve been very fortunate in regard to making sure the troops receive what we send. Over the past five years there have only been a couple of cases of pilferage and we were able to quickly replace the items. I’m still sometimes amazed that we can send a shipment of desperately needed supplies and it finds its way into the hands of the guys overseas just a short time later. The USPS gets the job done.
Can you give us a little information on the Troops Direct partnership with Denny’s?
AN: A local franchisee in the Bay Area who owns fourteen Denny’s learned about what we were doing and wanted to get involved. Initially I thought it might just entail a banner or two in the stores, which we certainly would have appreciated, but they’ve gone well beyond that. In addition to the banners and displays on the table, they’ve included a special line on the checks presented to their guests to contribute directly to us. Even their servers are wearing “Ask Me About Troops Direct” buttons. When a corporation the size of Denny’s supports us this way, the impact is felt first hand by the troops.
We’ve also been fortunate to forge some great relationships with teams from Major League Baseball and NASCAR. They know what we’re about and the direct role they can play in our troops lives. It’s the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Our hats are off to them for helping American soldiers in such a tangible way.
What can we do to help TroopsDirect in its goal of providing for the troops in need on the front lines?
AN: As a non-profit organization that relies solely on the tax-deductible, financial contributions of the public to fulfill our mission, we hope that people will donate. And they can do so knowing that, currently, 97 cents of every donated dollar goes directly to purchase and shipment of requested supplies. We’re very proud of that figure because it represents a true commitment from everyone involved in Troops Direct.
But just as importantly, I’d like to encourage people to take a moment and really consider the realities facing our forward-deployed troops throughout the world. Despite the best efforts of the military many American soldiers, who are living in a world we can’t even imagine, don’t have access to the types of supplies most of us believe are readily available. Our nation collectively supports our veterans as we should. They can never be forgotten. But Troops Direct is in the business of helping to create veterans by getting them what they need to do their jobs and come safely. I’m hopeful that someday Troops Direct won’t need to exist. But until then, and with the public’s continued support, we won’t rest.