Operation Gratitude sends toys on a mission


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One by one.

Jeff Wilson?s words become staccato and his eyes grow puffier as he strains to keep his emotions in check.

The Vietnam veteran is telling the story of a teen who is mentally disabled. Spread out before her are dozens of Beanie Babies and Webkinz she is giving to his cause.

But not before telling each goodbye, giving it a hug and a kiss, and then thoughtfully deciding which will be the next to go.

She does this over and over until, eventually, 100 of the stuffed animals are in Wilson?s hands.

Now they are destined for troops overseas through Operation Gratitude. The brightly colored plushes have a serious mission ? soldiers are able to give them to Afghani children and in exchange get valuable, life-saving information about the location of IEDs.

Improvised explosive devices are devastatingly lethal homemade bombs. The indiscriminate killers have been responsible for up to 70 percent of the casualties in Afghanistan since the war began.

Wilson started collecting, getting help from Veterans of Foreign Wars chapters and other groups.

He quickly found himself with 500 plush animals. Then 1,000.

At last count, his efforts had helped bring in more than 13,000.

Wilson, who is from Taylorville, was in Jacksonville on Friday to talk to the local VFW post about starting a collection point. The group hopes to get other organizations, businesses and schools involved.

With him were veterans Bob Cowles and Larry Wilson, as well as the man wanting to get the Jacksonville area involved in the program, Dick Weikert.

Weikert became involved with the group after the death of his son, Matthew, earlier this year. His son, Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Weikert, died July 17 when his group from the 101 Airborne Division encountered an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

He was introduced to Wilson and others involved with the Operation Gratitude collection through a bereavement group he attended.

Ironically, it was Wilson?s anger that got him involved ? a direct contrast to the soft and cuddly creatures he collects.

?I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I lost four years of quality life. Part of [the disorder] is anger, and I was told I needed to find a way to channel that anger,? he recalled.

?I decided if the government can?t save lives, I?m going to.?

One by one.

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