"Aunt Millie" — as soldiers receiving care packages in Afghanistan affectionately refer to 95-year-old Vivian "Millie" Bailey — doesn't see an end in sight for the work her group does. Yet she and her volunteers are more than willing to take on more.
"Whatever number of troops we have over there is too many," says the Running Brook resident, who has lived in Columbia since 1970.
"Any time you have to send them toilet paper, and then any president says [the country] is meeting our troops' needs… well, that just makes me want to stand up and fuss and cuss," Bailey said.
Still, she emphasizes that anyone knowing a soldier who would like to receive care packages should contact her group, "and we will add them to our list and take care of them."
She started sending packages solo in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now she masterminds a 12-person effort to mail tens of dozens of homemade cookies and purchased snacks, personal hygiene supplies, coffee and tea, and other items soldiers want but can't get, such as books, DVDs, video games and playing cards.
Flat-rate boxes that cost $14.85 in postage and can hold up to 20 pounds are sent through the Woodstock post office every other month. They send an average of 15 boxes collectively weighing nearly 300 pounds each time, Bailey said. American Legion Post 156 in Ellicott City donates $75 toward each mailing.
Capt. Lelys E. Miller, chaplain of the 87th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, is one of the contacts who receives and distributes packages in Afghanistan. The chaplain wrote in an email that at least 5,000 soldiers have benefited from the mailings sent by Bailey's group, especially enjoying the chocolate-chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies.
"Their cookies are in every office on this footprint," the chaplain wrote. "It makes our soldiers feel at home. THEY LOVE IT! The last [ones] she sent for July-August were seen and gone. We greatly appreciate her."
And Bailey and her volunteers, who've lost count of the number of cookies they've baked and sent over the years, deeply appreciate the soldiers' sacrifice.
"We need to remind our troops as often as possible that we're thinking of them, off in these remote places," said Bailey, who served as a first lieutenant in the Women's Army Corps during World War II.
She believes too many Americans consider it old news that U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan more than a dozen years later, especially as the eyes of the world focus on the conflict in Syria.
And "remote" is an apt description for these locations, says Martin Johnson, a retired Howard County police officer who volunteers with the group.
"These are, for the most part, literal battle zones where bullets are flying," said Johnson, an Ellicott City resident who retired in 2009 as a detective corporal after 25 years' service. "Sometimes, we get word that they lost a soldier."
He became acquainted with Millie and her husband, William Bailey, who has since died, when Johnson joined the county Police Department in 1984 and the couple served as community liaisons to the police.
Friends ever since, he became a member of Bailey's "entourage," as he jokingly calls it, when she asked him for his help nearly 10 years ago, and continues to assist her whenever he can. A number of county police officers who serve in the Army Reserves had been activated and deployed in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan at the time and that caught his attention.
He describes his role in the effort as that of unofficial chauffeur, helping Bailey with transportation, picking up donations and mailing boxes.
"This is all her," Johnson, 53, says of the effort. "We volunteers are just cogs in her wheel. Millie gets things done because it's easy to perceive she's on a mission, and people want to help her with that mission. Jason's Wine and Spirits on Route 40, for example, has donated many, many pounds of snacks.
"There's pure kindness in Millie Bailey," he said. "She's beautifully spoken and charming, and she loves to help people. There's not a mean bone in her body."
Judy Dye, who knows Bailey from First Presbyterian Church of Howard County — where both women are members — readily concurred.
"Millie is a very exceptional person. She's the one who organizes this, and that's the key thing," said Dye, 71, a retired Department of Defense employee. She has been assisting Bailey for about five years.
"This project is the effort of a lot of people, but she's the point of contact," she said. "She's the one who gets the funding and talks to the local merchants about donations. David's Natural Market in Wilde Lake contributes snack bars, thanks to her efforts.
"And she certainly is sharp. She still drives! As a matter of fact, I think she recently bought a new car," said Dye, who contributes home-baked snickerdoodles. "She's something."
Bailey concedes that she is not content to sit idle. In addition to her efforts on behalf of the military, she has worked closely with nearby Running Brook Elementary School for many years, doing everything from connecting the school with donors and spearheading fundraising efforts to making needlepoint bookmarks for the students.
"The school and the troops — these are my two main projects," said Bailey, who never had children and considers the students and the soldiers, along with many friends in the community, her "big, adopted family."
She also remains active on the county's Police Advisory Council and on the board of Howard County General Hospital; she has been involved with both for 20 years.
Most people assume her volunteers have a personal connection to someone serving in the military, but currently none of the 12 helpers do, she said. They just want to show their support.
Postal clerks say, "'You must have sons or grandsons in Afghanistan' when we're mailing our boxes," she said. "And I say, 'Nope. But we call them all our kids.'