When Marietta resident Valerie Winchell started Project Bravo with her son more than eight years ago, she never imagined it would become a chance to put a Bible-and a message that someone cares-into the hands of more 10,000 soldiers and veterans this year.
The project started small, with Winchell and her son putting together a handful of military care packages as a way to give back to soldiers.
“I really tried to instill in my sons that you give back. You have to find what calls you and give back,” she said.
Slowly things began to grow, recalled Winchell, 52.
“One year we did 10, and the next year we did 10 more. It just built up,” she said.
Last year, the nonprofit shipped out more than 450 care packages.
While the care packages are still an important component, Project Bravo has evolved to have a heavy focus on personally inscribed Bibles, said Winchell.
Many of the Bibles are shipped as part of care packages, destined for soldiers overseas. Some are picked up by chaplains and distributed at military bases. Some are distributed through local veteran organizations throughout the country.
Locally, some of the churches involved with Project Bravo have held events where the Bibles were made available to local veterans and soldiers, said Winchell.
“I know some of the churches gave them to veterans in the congregation on Veterans’ Day, thanking them for their service,” she said.
Winchell also handed out Bibles to veterans and soldiers during a parade in honor of Kyle Hockenberry, a local soldier who lost both legs above the knee and his left arm above the elbow in an explosion while on foot patrol in Afghanistan in 2011.
Last year the organization gave out 10,282 Bibles.
“It gives me chills to think about how many we’ll be able to give out this year,” said Winchell.
She has moved around a bit since starting the project in Marietta in 2005. Less than a month ago she returned to Marietta from Dayton, where she had previously been living and vigorously promoting the project.
Chaplain Steve J. Wyke, of Kettering, volunteers at the Veterans’ Administration in Dayton and has personally handed out several Bibles and care packages to veterans in need, he said.
“We have a homeless shelter for veterans (in Dayton)…These aren’t just passed out on the street. These are going right to, primarily, veterans who are on rough times,” said Wyke, a disabled Vietnam veteran.
The Bibles and care kits are a source of encouragement for the veterans, he said.
“Guys and gals really appreciate somebody taking the time to walk up to them and say ‘There’s no strings attached to this. This is for you,'” said Wyke.
Now Project Bravo has 62 sites scattered throughout the United States that have agreed to collect, store, or ship items. The sites also serve as a destination for military chaplains who want to pick up the Bibles for distribution, Winchell said.
Several churches have also gotten involved in the project.
Winchell’s home church-Marietta Church of Christ-has been helping put together the care packages since the beginning, said Minister Bob Feathers.
“I know that in the congregation I serve, as well as some other churches, people have already started asking if we’re going to do it again. I think this project is important to a lot of people in our area,” he said.
Between the Marietta Church of Christ, the Pinehurst Church of Christ, the Belpre Church of Christ, and the Sixth and Washington Street Church of Christ, more than 1,200 Bibles were signed last year, said Feathers.
“Our goal this year for our congregation is to sign 1,000 Bibles,” he said.
The church plans on holding a fundraiser to ship the Bibles, which can cost around $18 to ship if part of a care package going overseas. They also might have more public signing events like one held a few years ago in East Muskingum Park, said Feathers.
“We had a booth set up and several people from the community, including veterans, signed Bibles,” he said.
The messages range from words of thanks to soldiers for their service to prayers and favorite Bible verses.
One family had several members jot down words of support in a Bible that was headed specifically for their family member, said Winchell.
“So every time he opened that Bible it was like his family was right there with him,” she said.
Even when they come from strangers, those hand scribbled words of encouragement and thanks mean a lot to the soldiers receiving Bibles-something Winchell has experienced first hand.
Once she had an opportunity to give Bibles to a military Bible study group in Virginia. Winchell was a stranger to the group, which consisted of 11 members, all of whom suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They were very nice to me but very reserved,” she recalled.
Then the soldiers opened the Bibles and read the opening pages, filled with words of gratitude and support from people they had never met.
“Two of the soldiers that received a Bible started to cry when they opened it up and saw the message that was inside,” she recalled.
Winchell has also gotten feedback on her website, www.project-bravo.org, from Bible recipients.
“One of the soldiers wrote on the website ‘Receiving the Bible did not change my life, but opening it did,'” she said.
Project Bravo asks that people do not simply purchase a Bible to donate as there is a special Bible intended for military use. The non-denominational Bibles are produced by The American Bible Society and include camouflage covers and Bible studies relevant to military life, said Winchell.
Donations to help cover the cost of Bibles and shipping costs can be made through the website. Supporters can also elect to sponsor a care package for $17.45 that will go to a specific veteran.