When Marine Corps Sgt. Don Downer Jr. was 18 years old and stationed in Tsingtao, China, in 1948, his mother, Irene, would send him care packages, always including chocolate chip cookies and Spam.
"After 30 days on the boat ride, those cookies were just crumbs, but the Marines would gather around and wolf down those crumbs," said Downer, now a Columbia resident. "Nothing was wasted; even the dust was poured into the coffee. And, it got so I couldn't even look at the Spam."
Care packages were a morale booster for military men and women, Downer said, and he's continued his mother's tradition over the last decade. On May 19, the 88-year-old veteran prepared his 3,000th care package at his home, to ship to Capt. John Lefebvre in Afghanistan.
Downer said he began sending care packages to troops he heard from in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2009, one year after the death of his wife, Elsie. With a 100-percent success rate, Downer has shipped each package at approximately $17.35, given tax rate fluctuations, accumulating total costs of nearly $116,000 in the last nine years.
A member of Columbia's American Legion Post 300, Downer said the post has contributed many food and item donations toward his efforts.
"It's enlightening to know that one person can do so much to keep the morale of the troops," he said. "The most important item is what they put in their stomach and if you can fill it, it's very appreciative from their standpoint."
His days in China were only the beginning of his military career. After being honorably discharged in 1949 and enrolling in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, Downer said he was called back into active duty at the start of the Korean War in 1950, when he served as the communications officer at
Two years later, Downer was honorably discharged once again, and completed his Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. He then worked as a guided missile systems engineer at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel until his retirement in 1989.
Walking into a small dining area in his home on May 19, Downer stared at a wall of shelving, which he called the commissary. Perishable and non-perishable food items were stacked along each row, ranging from jars of peanut butter and jelly and canned tuna to Oreo cookies and strawberry Twizzlers.
Downer stood over a priority mail-labeled shipping box from the U.S. Postal Service, and began to strategically fill every space with food and comfort items. His fellow members at Post 300 have supported his work, he said.
"When we were doing it ourselves, maybe one out of 20 would come back home because someone already left the territory," said post adjutant Bob Berlett, watching Downer prep the package. "When you see his procedure, it's like poetry in motion."
A signature Downer care package item is a can of Spam, Berlett said as Downer placed a hickory smoked-flavored Spam in his latest package. Other items in his 3,000th care package included recent copies of American Rifleman and ESPN magazines; foot powder; Tobasco sauce; Vienna sausage; sunflower seeds; Pop-Tarts; and Cracker Jacks.
Among the Marines, Downer said he's become known as the "Spam Czar," receiving thank-yous from military units all over the world in the form of folded American flags and plaques as well as unique items, such as an Afghan rug and embroidered silk.
"No one else has done what he has done for the men and women in uniform," said Jim Piersall, American Legion Post 300 commander. "It's wonderful."
"I'd say Don Downer is one of the most remarkable people I've ever met," added post member Christopher Bowers. "These are things you take for granted every day, yet you go certain places and these troop will not have that. Believe it or not, even if you didn't like it before, you miss it. It's definitely fulfilling."
After 15 minutes of putting the package together, Downer sealed its contents with clear duct tape. Looking back at his still-full commissary, Downer said he will strive to reach care package number 4,000 in the near future.
"The American Legion has been very generous in supporting this effort with donations and goods," he said. "I'll keep going as far as I can."