CHAMPAIGN - A U.S. Army major who distributed Girl Scout cookies to troops all over the Middle East returned to Champaign on Wednesday to thank the donors.
"Everyone's eating MREs in the desert in 100-degree heat, so those cookies brought joy to many hearts," said Maj. Brian Reardon, speaking to youngsters at St. Matthew Catholic School. Girl Scout and Brownie Scout troops collected donations of money and cookie boxes to send overseas so Reardon could distribute them.
Reardon gave pictures of a combat aircraft, and two flags that had flown on a mission in it, to troop leaders Jane Plankenhorn and Kelly Strom, and to the school.
"With this kind of support behind the troops, they can do what they need to do," he said.
Reardon told students gathered for an honors assembly that he chose to send his family to Champaign for the year he would be stationed overseas so his three sons, Kevan, 10, Kyle, 8, and Connor, 6, could attend St. Matthew where his wife, Mary, had also attended school.
"We came here for family support because that means a lot, but we also found community support." Reardon said. "We got support from St. Matthew. I was amazed to find this kind of support in a non-military community."
During cookie sales in March, the Girl Scouts decided to collect the boxes to send to Saudi Arabia because they knew Reardon was stationed there and could distribute them. He had addressed an assembly at the school in November, and one of his sons and Plankenhorn's daughter are classmates.
Donations exceeded expectations, and the girls eventually mailed 600 boxes to Reardon with the help of an anonymous international shipper who made sure the cookies got to their destination quickly.
Reardon said by the time he took possession of the shipment, some cookie-starved troops had already helped themselves to several boxes.
"I wrapped each box in brown paper to make sure they got to their destination," he said.
Reardon sent them to three destinations, two combat units in Iraq and one special forces unit in Afghanistan.
A career Army officer, Reardon worked as an Army liaison to the Air Force for 11 months at Prince Sultan Air Base for the Combined Air Operations Center "to give Army perspective on the ground conflict."
He returns to Qatar in mid-June, and his family will move to Fort Drum, N.Y. Reardon said he expects to go to Afghanistan to work as a logistical officer next.
"My unit's already there," he said.
He said soldiers in the Middle East got a lot of support from home, like flags and Christmas and Easter cards from school children, but the cookies were a first.
Plankenhorn said her troop also got an invitation from a Decatur-based Air National Guard unit as a result of the Girl Scout cookie campaign and a News-Gazette story about it.
She said pilot Kevin McAndrew invited troop members to visit the base and see flight operations there.
"We went two weeks ago, about 12 girls, and everyone got a chance to sit in a helicopter, try on the helmets and tour the hangers," she said.
St. Matthew students and visiting parents gave Reardon a standing ovation when he was introduced to the assembly.
You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.