- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Under the sweltering sun in Iraq and Afghanistan, service members are being tormented by sand fleas, but a soothing balm made by a local skin care expert is offering some relief from the insects’ bites.

The ointment, known as Combat-Ready Balm, was created by Sara Damelio, a beauty aesthetician at the Stillpoint Wellness Center in Takoma Park who has her own organic skin-care line called Skincando.

In honor of Military Appreciation Month, Ms. Damelio and 630 WMAL are partnering on a campaign called Operation Sand Flea. Their goal is to send at least 5,000 jars of the cream to Iraq and Afghanistan by July 4.

Marine Corps Sgt. Joe Surunis, who was stationed in Iraq last year, describes sand fleas as “tiny, clear gnats that bite the heck out of you. They come out in the early morning and at night when it’s cooler, but they get worse in the summer. The only thing that keeps them away is bug spray.”

Sgt. Surunis says a jar of Combat-Ready Balm was left for him by the Marine he replaced.

“I fell in love with it, and wanted to help get it to other people. It really sped up the healing,” he says.

Matthew Carpenter, a 23-year-old Marine, says that he is still recovering from complications from a sand flea bite he incurred more than two years ago while stationed on the east coast of Iraq. The bite carried with it a parasitic infection.

“Iraq must be the sand flea holy land,” says Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Coy. “We are at our wits’ end and going crazy due to be bitten 10 to 20 times nightly with nothing that is working.”

Combat-Ready Balm got its start in 2001 when Ms. Damelio created a facial moisturizer she called “Miracle Cream.”

“People thought it was too heavy for their face, so they started using it for diaper rash, burns and severe dry skin on the body,” she says.

She eventually changed the name and marketing of the product, which got the attention of Jessie Popchak, wife of soldier Marc Popchak. Mrs. Popchak bought some balm, which retails for $25 for a 2-ounce jar, and then “asked for more two weeks later because it was the only cream her husband found that worked to calm his sand flea bites,” Ms. Damelio says.

Looking to help soldiers and expose military leaders to the healing powers of her product, Ms. Damelio says she has sent “about 1,475 jars at my own expense and through asking for donations on my Web site, skincando.com,” to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

M. K. Tribbie of the office of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Advanced Systems and Concepts says while the office of the Secretary of Defense cannot endorse any particular product, it has given Ms. Damelio help with the initial process of making the cream more easily available to service members.

“If someone goes on my Web site and buys a jar to be sent, it is the wholesale cost of $12.50. I don’t charge a shipping fee if the jar is donated. Skincando pays the cost of the shipping,” she notes. “I send jars to trusted individuals and then they distribute them accordingly.”

Paul Duckworth, operations manager of WMAL says, “If you’ve actually seen a sand flea bite, you know why our troops are so excited to get some real relief. Our listeners have stepped up, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. Our servicemen and women will stop scratching. Donate a jar and both you and a soldier will feel better.”

To donate to Operation Sand Flea, go to www.630wmal.com and type in the keyword “help” or visit www.skincando.com. In addition to donating a jar of balm to a soldier, $1 from each contribution will be donated to the Fisher House Foundation, a public-private organization that supports military families.

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