U.S. Army First Sgt. Polly Crandall had never met the Girl Scouts troop and adults who gathered Friday in Camden to greet her, but she wasn't a stranger to them.
They had sent care packages of cookies, food, sunflower seeds, toiletries, and essentials to her unit in the 82d Airborne Division, which was deployed to Afghanistan in September. Included were notes such as "Thank you for fighting the bad guys."
One woman hugged Crandall at the Fairview Village Community Center in Yorkship Square and said she felt as if she knew the 22-year Army veteran, based in Fort Bragg, N.C.
The Girl Scouts gave Crandall a gift bag with Twizzlers and Reese's Pieces - two of her favorites.
Crandall's 34-member unit returned from Kandahar almost two weeks ago under President Obama's order to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year.
"Since we've been going at this war for 10 years, the fact that the American people are still our biggest cheerleaders is very humbling," said Crandall, 44, a native of Southampton, Pa., whose sister, Wren Ingram, lives in Fairview and is a cochairwoman of the Fairview Neighbors.
Since early in the deployment, Ingram had been sending her sister packages including homemade chocolate-chip cookies and pajamas. Dorothy Burley, 69, an association cochairwoman, suggested adopting the entire unit - who are members of the 82d Airborne Division All-American Band.
"It just seemed like the right thing to do," Burley said. "I feel better when I give during the holidays."
Monetary and other donations flowed in from groups including the Fairview Village United Methodist Church, City Council members, neighborhood association members, and the Winslow Township-based Girl Scouts troop. Schoolchildren in the community center's after-school program wrote letters.
Crandall's unit traveled mostly in southern Afghanistan performing for soldiers involved in daily combat. It also mentored members of the Afghan National Army Band, said Crandall, who plays the flute.
Soldiers at Fort Bragg, also home to Army Special Operations and the 18th Airborne Corps, have served numerous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Tuesday, nearly 400 paratroopers from Fort Bragg, the last Army unit in Baghdad, returned home.
Earlier this month, Obama saluted troops from the base, which has lost more than 200 fighting in Iraq.
In Kandahar, some members of Crandall's unit did not realize the packages were coming from Fairview Neighbors. One soldier's last name is Neighbors; some soldiers thought the packages came from his family.
Adopting U.S. troops overseas is not unusual; communities in South Jersey and nationwide have done so since the war in Afghanistan started in 2001. But many of those kindhearted souls have not had the chance to meet the recipients of their goodwill.
For the Fairview group, adopting the unit was a chance to do something beyond the after-school picnics, Easter egg hunts, Halloween parades, and Santa photos for neighborhood residents.
It made it sweeter that one soldier was one of their own: Spc. Jamar DeWalt, 28, a married father of two and a Woodrow Wilson graduate. He grew up in a rowhouse in Parkside with his grandmother, aunt, and mother.
He credited his dedication to the trumpet, in part, to a deal with his mother. When he was in fifth grade, his mother bought him a trumpet for $200 from his band director, he said Friday from Fort Bragg. If he quit, she told him, he would have to pay her back.
"It was just a proud feeling to know that the packages came from my hometown," he said. "Especially knowing what my city is known for. It shows there's a lot of good in Camden."
The city is consistently ranked among the most violent in the United States. Neighborhood organizations such as Fairview, however, work to counter that image.
Fairview resident Laura Sanchez said that adopting the unit was a great lesson for her 10-year-old daughter, Josie, who bought candy and toiletries for the packages.
"Our kids always receive things from other people who give things to the poor kids in Camden," she said. "Our kids need to learn . . . they can also give to other people, and they have a responsibility to be an active member of a community."
This article includes information from the Associated Press.