As a boy growing up in Menifee, Jesse Karr enjoyed working on model airplanes and dreamed about being a pilot.
Today, as Capt. Jesse Karr of the U.S. Marine Corps, he uses his flying skills to distribute supplies to the most remote military bases in Afghanistan. But he does more than that -- especially at this time of year.
To troops stationed in the small military encampments of the Afghan desert, Karr and his fellow helicopter pilots are the Marines' version of Santa Claus.
Karr, 29, is stationed at Camp Leatherneck, the largest Marine base in Afghanistan. Although he hardly has the comforts of home, Karr does live in air conditioned quarters, has access to a commissary and can communicate with the outside world via the Internet.
His primary responsibility is carrying supplies to troops who have much less. Many are stationed in small camps in the middle of nowhere, enduring dust storms in tents while battling enemy forces. Their only source of food and water is what pilots like Karr bring them.
By including care packages from home in those shipments, Karr and other members of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 exemplify the true spirit of giving. In many cases, the gifts they deliver are not from the Marines' own families. They are care packages sent to the pilots themselves.
"We started sending care packages to Jesse," said Terry Karr, Jesse's mother. "But Jesse said, 'Don't send it for me; send it for them.' "
"Them" refers to the Marines whose holiday season is more lonely than those at Camp Leatherneck who are afforded the occasional phone call or email back home. "They" are the ones who will have perhaps only a dozen Marines with them to celebrate Christmas, with no word from loved ones for weeks at a time.
After making a few flights out to the remote bases, Karr and the other pilots realized a way they could share some of what they had.
"People from home were sending stuff like crazy," said Karr, who is on his second deployment to the area. "I really had more than I needed, and a lot of my fellow pilots felt the same way. We decided to start taking things out to the guys in the dirt. They are the guys doing the real work, getting shot at and losing their buddies.
"I can't imagine what it's like for them. I'm sure it's nice to get something from home."
Karr said he usually doesn't get to witness first-hand the reaction of the Marines upon receiving the gifts. For the safety of all involved, the helicopters are on the ground for less than five minutes -- just long enough to drop off supplies and return to the base. Most of the flights are at night.
Expressions of gratitude soon make their way back to Camp Leatherneck through military communication, however. Those troops are most appreciative of the simple things, especially hygiene products such as baby wipes.
"It's so dusty out there, and they don't have facilities to take a shower," said Terry Karr, who lives in Menifee with her husband, Earl. "We also send crackers, cookies, hats and gloves, things like that."
In Menifee, this support of Marines they don't even know is a growing effort with members of the Karrs' church, as well as others in the community. Terry Karr says the family and others locally have sent hundreds of packages to Afghanistan.
"We'll take 50 boxes with the address on them to church and they're all gone before we leave," she said.
Jesse Karr said the gifts are much appreciated, and he is happy to pass them on.
"There's hundreds of small bases out there in the desert," he said. "We might go to a base once a month. Food and water get priority, so if there isn't space for mail, they might get mail from home only once every couple months."
Whenever possible, however, those care packages find a way inside the chopper when it's time for a supply run.
Karr, who is single, graduated from Paloma Valley High School and entered the service right after graduating from flight school in 2005. He is due home in March but could be deployed again. After his service commitment is up in August 2014, he plans to transfer to the Coast Guard and remain a pilot.
In the meantime, he fulfills an important mission for the Marines -- in more ways than one.
"We don't get holidays off here," Karr said. "Everybody does their part to keep the holiday spirit. Guys will have little Christmas trees people sent from home. Sometimes, when we're flying into a small base at night, we'll see Christmas lights hanging from the tents."
The troops stationed in Afghanistan appreciate your help during the holidays and year-round. If you'd like to send a care package to Capt. Karr for distribution to Marines in Afghanistan, leave a comment here with your email address or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll put you in touch with family members who will help facilitate the delivery.