When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Army spouse and mom Christina Etchberger was in the middle of her husband’s second deployment and no longer teaching middle school. As the virus and social distancing regulations impacted her community in Lawton, Oklahoma, she noticed many people needed help, including residents of Fort Sill Veterans Center, where she had previously volunteered with her students.
“I knew these veterans centers relied on volunteers. I also knew some of these folks didn’t have family supporting them,” Etchberger said. “I called and asked, ‘How can we help?’”
The answer was simple: Writing cards and letters.
Throughout America’s military conflicts, letter writing campaigns have emerged when someone noticed their comrades didn’t have anyone writing or calling. A well-known Dear Abby letter requesting mail for lonely soldiers during the Vietnam era was met with an overwhelming response from the American public.
Following suit, Etchberger founded the nonprofit It’s a Military Life (IML) as a network of support for military spouses, veterans and their families. When rapid COVID-19 spread at veterans homes led to extreme social distancing restrictions, IML launched the Veterans Pen Pal Project (VPPP) to connect community volunteers with isolated veterans.
Joining the mission
As both a military brat and Army spouse, Lexie Coppinger was quick to join the effort.
“We realized a lot of these folks were completely locked down and shut away from the world,” she said. “We wanted to reach out and say, ‘We see you. We know you’re still there. We’re thinking about you. We still care about you.’”
Coppinger has witnessed the impact the letters can have as program manager for the Veterans Pen Pal Project.
“It is wild how just one positive card, one positive letter can change the entire well-being of an individual that might be struggling,” she said.
One conversation in particular with a widowed military spouse stood out to Coppinger.
“This woman lives alone. Her husband died almost 20 years ago. She said to me that you have no idea how lonely you are until the only person you talk to is yourself 24/7.”
After receiving a mailbox full of Valentine’s Day cards from a local preschool, the widow was nearly in tears.
“She said, ‘You have no idea how much these glitter-filled, sticker-covered cards meant to me.’ You could just hear the smile on her face,” Coppinger said.
The VPPP, which is led by volunteers and funded through through private donations, offers two ways to get involved.
- Those interested in being a pen pal can request a veteran pen pal by signing up on It’s a Military Life’s website.
- Veterans interested in being paired with a pen pal can also sign up.
Alternately, volunteers can participate in mass card drives, which are organized during holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas. During these large-scale events, the VPPP coordinates with other military-affiliated nonprofits to provide addresses to veterans’ centers, assisted living facilities, homeless veterans centers and VA hospitals.
Coppinger estimates the VPPP currently has around 500 volunteers, with many more schools, family readiness groups, active-duty units and civilians participating in mass card drives. Last December, in conjunction with Operation Holiday Salute, they collected and distributed nearly 50,000 cards.
“It really is a nationwide effort,” Coppinger said. “We build a lot of bridges between the civilian and military communities. If anyone is willing to help out, we link them in.”
A creative way to serve
As the volunteer coordinator for Deployed Love in Fort Benning, Georgia, Army spouse Kim Clagg thought the VPPP would be a creative way for military spouses and children — including her own — to serve their community.
“If we don’t teach our children now, things like Veterans Pen Pal might not happen in the future,” Clagg said. “My daughter asks a lot of questions, and I’m hoping this is planting the seed to be that support in her community.”
In December, a group of military spouses and children met at a coffee shop and made several dozen cards for Veteran’s Last Patrol, a nonprofit supporting veterans in hospice care.
“Some of these veterans were possibly celebrating their last Christmas,” Clagg said. “It’s sad to know they are alone, but you feel a connection with them because of their military service. Everyone really enjoyed making the cards.”
Clagg emphasized how easy it is for anyone to brighten the day of a veteran by mailing cards and letters.
“This is an open-arms opportunity for everybody, whether you’re military or not,” she said. “The Veterans Pen Pal Project is a great way to help veterans in the community and give them a little cheer and a little love so they know they are not forgotten.”
To learn more, volunteer or donate to the Veterans Pen Pal Project, visit www.itsamilitarylife.org.