In the rear of a vast, empty storefront in Downtown Oakland, the smell of mildew permeates the air. Piles of new boxes sit stacked in tidy drifts beneath a row of tiny American flags. Aaron Negherbon ripped a swatch of packing tape across a box, the sound bounding through the cavernous space.
Negherbon tears into a box filled with water filtration kits from R.E.I. Another box holds thermal camping showers. Yet another holds GPS devices. The items are just a few hours from leaving Oakland for the front lines of the war in Afghanistan.
“We still have over a hundred thousand service members in Afghanistan,” said Negherbon in the halting voice of a drill sergeant. “They are still fighting every single day on the front line.”
Though Negherbon himself has never served in the military, TroopsDirect, the non-profit group he started in his Danville garage has sent ten tons of supplies to frontline troops serving in Afghanistan.
“This isn’t candy or cookies,” said Negherbon. “This is stuff we think is supplied… and it’s not.”
Among the supplies he sends, stretchers used by front line medics. Chalk powder troops use to mark roadside bombs they discover, a service previously achieved by bottle caps. Negherbon said commanders from units in Afghanistan call him directly asking for things they can’t get through the usual government channels.
The calls usually begin with a similar disclaimer: “hey I don’t know if you can do this but we need…”
The requests have included hundreds of pairs of eye protectors or power washers for a unit plagued with the flu. There was the time when a commander called looking for flower seeds to re-create a field to train troops on the latest terrorist methods employed by the Taliban. The call came in at 9am. By 1:00 pm, the shipment was on its way.
“Since we founded TroopsDirect 18 months ago, we shipped over ten tons of requested support to the front lines,” said Negherbon.
Negherbon said he came up with the idea for the organization after sending a 45-pound care package to a Marine buddy serving in Afghanistan.
“And he emails me back and says ‘thank you so much,’” recalled Negherbon. “I needed what was in this box.”
The kind of supplies TroopsDirect sends, are things that take ages to acquire in the middle of a war-torn desert. Former Afghanistan-based Marine Caleb Jackson said requests for basic supplies wound through the ranks of commanders back to Washington D.C… and back.
“Aaron’s getting stuff over there in a matter of days, maybe a week,” said Jackson by phone from his home in Arkansas. “If we were trying to do it on our own, through the military, the government, it could take weeks or even months.”
Negherbon said the non-profit is now his full-time job. On Wednesday he was busy packing up water filtration systems to ship to a unit of Camp Pendleton Marines deploying for a tour of Afghanistan.
“When we are told an item we sent over saved a life or saved limbs,” said Negherbon, “ I mean God, that’s the best thing in the world.”