- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

COLUMBUS, OHIO (AP) - The sky is still dark when David Waun sets out with a brisket-packed trailer to camp out and feed soldiers.

After the tents are pitched and the lanterns are lit, he starts trimming and seasoning about 400 pounds of meat. Then the self-described “chief barbecue officer” of this carnivorous caravan settles in for a long, smoky night of grilling.

“Barbecue is really something that’s cooked low and slow,” said Waun, 57, who travels the state barbecuing at pre-deployment and welcome home ceremonies for soldiers. “And you have to make sure you’re done early; you can’t be done late. I can’t tell 300 soldiers, ‘Give me 15 more minutes.’”

The idea of serving up free pork and ribs began simmering in Waun’s brain last spring, when he attended an Ohio National Guard town hall meeting aimed at drumming up support for military families. The forum carried a message for the public: Hold off on the care packages, please. We’d prefer your time and labor instead.

“I just didn’t want to drive around any more with a bumper sticker that says ‘We support the troops’ without actually doing something,” Waun said.

After the meeting, volunteers and service groups popped up. There was the repairman willing to patch a leaky roof for a deployed soldier’s wife, and the woman who volunteered to care for dogs and cats while Guard members spent weekends at drill training. A generous accountant even offered to prepare taxes for hundreds of harried service members.

“So many people think that what they have to offer is not what we need,” said Michele Gire, a mother of three Marines who spearheaded the town hall effort. “And they’re so wrong. There’s so much they can do.”

Maj. Gen. Gregory L. Wayt, Ohio’s adjutant general, is hosting another round of town halls starting Tuesday. And the Guard is developing a program tailored to volunteers who aren’t quite sure what their skills are, Gire said.

“A lot of these organizations want to help,” Wayt said. “They just don’t know the pathway to do it.”

The National Guard Bureau does not track whether other states have similar public outreach efforts, and Wayt did not know if the program was unique. But spokesman Randy Noller said such events are usually handled by local military units in their individual communities.

While her husband was stationed in Kuwait last year, 38-year-old Laurie Jones cared for the couple’s two small children by herself. When water began dripping through the roof in the family’s northwestern Ohio home, Jones called her local Guard family readiness coordinator for assistance.

The volunteer network flew into action, and the leak was sealed at no charge.

“It was just such a huge relief not to have to worry about that,” said Jones, who lives in Swanton. “My husband usually takes care of those things. But I’m not getting on the roof.”

Bill Huckaby, an accountant from Sylvania, attended one of the meetings to spread the word about his accounting service’s fledgling attempts to prepare soldiers’ tax returns for free. After patiently canvassing recruiting stations in northwest Ohio, he had attracted few takers.

“The one question I got asked countless times was, you know, what’s the catch?” Huckaby said. “And there was no catch. They thought we had some sort of hidden agenda.”

He met Gire at the town hall, and she helped to build his list of pro bono clients from about 150 soldiers in 2008 to more than 300 this year. Now the requests are pouring in from 15 states and soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He expect to be doing 1,000 returns for free in a couple of years.

The need for volunteers is even more crucial during the recession, Wayt said, though he noted that the number of donors is still robust. But for some volunteers, it’s increasingly difficult to keep pace with demand.

Waun, who works at a restaurant supplier, has recently been forced to turn down some requests because he simply doesn’t have enough volunteers. Sometimes he is only accompanied by his wife, Laura; once, he barbecued for 100 soldiers by himself.

Then there’s the price tag: Buying bulk meat and hauling equipment halfway across the state isn’t cheap. Feeding 400 people, for instance, costs about $1,000. When he can’t raise enough donations to cover the operating costs, Waun pays the difference himself.

But as long as he’s able to hold a pair of tongs, he has no intention of shutting down his smoker.

“I think, as a country, we need to pay more attention to our soldiers and their families,” Waun said. “The families are also serving our country, albeit in a different way. But they’re making sacrifices that they really didn’t even volunteer to do.”

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