Thankful Troops Smoke 7,000 Cigars
While we are constantly reminded of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we often lose site of the people serving. Sure, we support the troops and lament the fact that some are separated from their families for a year or longer ... with unfortunate regularity. But, these concepts remain abstract from those who don't don the uniform every day. Many have a friend or family member serving, but the vast majority is another step removed from the sacrifice. Chuck Ley, founder of the organization Cigars for Soldiers, is bridging the gap. His effort has added a personal and genuine touch to a "support the troops" message that the mainstream media has forced into cliché too soon.
Ley, like me, was a soldier. While my service entailed comfy pencil-pushing positions in Uijongbu, South Korea and Fort Gordon, Georga, he was an infantryman – the real deal – wounded in action in Mogadishu, Somalia. It wasn't the event immortalized in Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, but few realize that we fought more than once over there. Though back in civilian life for more than a decade, Ley has not forgotten his time in uniform, and many of his friends continue to serve.
From time to time, Ley would get a phone call or e-mail from overseas, a friend in some far-flung place. The tone varied from casual inquiry to begging to near-demand: send cigars. How could a cigar-smoking former soldier refuse?
Gallery: Cigars for Soldiers
It started small; these things always do. Ley helped his friends by addressing their occasional requests ... which became larger and more frequent. Then, one day while driving with his wife, the idea flashed through his mind. She jotted furiously, as they fleshed out the concept for an organization that could move some serious volume. Seven thousand cigars later, it looks like it was a good one.
Donations come in all forms, according to Ley. Boxes, bundles and individual sticks arrive in Cape Coral, Florida from across the country, thanks to hundreds of ardent patriots and sympathetic citizens. Some make financial donations, and others provide accessories, such as cigar cutters, lighters and humidors. Ley packages up the goods and sends them directly to members of the U.S. armed forces serving overseas, with Afghanistan and Iraq receiving particular priority, for all the obvious reasons.
In these locations, vast informal distribution networks have emerged. Ley's contacts serve simply as the entry point, ensuring that as many service members as possible get the chance to light a cigar and relax, even if briefly. One point person in this unique supply chain is an Iraq-based chaplain. After services on Sundays, he hosts a get-together for cigar smokers, and no, they don't have to go to church first. The sole purpose of these gatherings is to enjoy what happens in cigar shops back home: smoke, talk and the feeling that the outside world is a lifetime away.
Last November, I asked De La Concha General Manager Ron Melendi to mention Cigars for Soldiers at an in-store cigar dinner honoring Don Pepin Garcia. He was eager to do so, and the result was a five-box donation by Pepin. David Wells, from NYC Cigar Co. was in attendance and quietly agreed to match Pepin's donation. That evening, soldiers received commitments that led to 250 hours (back-of-the-napkin calculation) of relief from war. The portion allocated to Iraq has already been enjoyed. Heavy fighting, unfortunately, has delayed the arrival of the Afghanistan shipment. Momentarily, at least, bliss is deferred.
Quite simply, I can't imagine what our troops are enduring, and I'm glad I don't have to know. They choose the burden so we won't have to carry it. Surely, that's worth an occasional cigar.
To make your donation, visit Cigars for Soldiers.