Credit: Operation Tango Mike
It’s another Thursday night in Lake County. We seem to be between rain storms, and even the sun has made an appearance as a promise of spring’s return. The sidewalks and streets of Lakeport are exchanging wet asphalt for dry. The day’s work is done, and most people are heading home for the evening. But on 11th Street, many are gathering, some strangers and some friends and acquaintances. My husband and I pull into the parking lot, dispersing a group of 4-H girls so we can park. Two men in Army uniforms approach the front doors to Umpqua Bank, and we know we are where we’re supposed to be on this third Thursday of the month in Lake County.
We follow the smell of food up the stairs. Around the corner rest two tables in red and blue tablecloths covered with red and blue plates and napkins. Further down are four large covered pans donated by Rosemary Martin from Rosey Cooks for tonight’s celebration. March 2023 marks twenty years of Operation Tango Mike in Lake County, fourteen years at Umpqua Bank, and more than twenty-five thousand boxes shipped over the years, not to mention packages to family members.
To truly know Operation Tango Mike, you have to meet Ginny Craven, founder and creator of what it is today. She’s not hard to find; she’s the one greeting people with smiles and hugs as she goes from room to room. But she is hard to pin down as more and more people seek her out, slipping her folded bills, checks, cards, gifts, and flowers. Each person is a friend, neighbor, veteran, or fellow community service member like Jonathan Blank from Hospice Services, district supervisor Eddie Crandell, Superintendent of Schools Brock Falkenberg, school teachers with letters from their students, members of the Sheriff’s Department, members of the Lakeport City Council, and active members of the different branches of service to name a few. All are here to celebrate and pack boxes for the servicemen and women in the armed forces serving and protecting us. It’s a small thing the community can do to let these men and women know that they are appreciated and not forgotten here at home.
Ginny pauses for a moment between conversations, and I introduce myself. After her warm welcome, she doesn’t hesitate to introduce me to Chad Holland, who served in the Army and received boxes from Operation Tango Mike when he was deployed. Chad stands a foot or so taller than me, with short light brown hair, and his kind, happy eyes meet mine.
“Did you have any favorite boxes?” I ask.
Chad pauses for only a moment. “No, I don’t think I had any one favorite box,” he reflects. “I think it was just the fact that I got something. It does so much for morale,” I would hear the word morale several more times in our conversation. He smiles. “I remember the first time someone in my squad got a box,” he continues. “He was all like, what is this? Who sent this to me? All of us guys just sat back and watched because we already knew, of course. So he opened it and was like, What!? as he kept pulling more and more things out. It was the best!” Chad’s face beams as if remembering a favorite Christmas present. I smile. Goosebumps prickle my arms as I imagine the moment.
“So, what was your favorite thing in the box?” I ask.
“Letters from the kids were always entertaining. They asked so many questions like, what was the weather like, what did it look like where I was, things like that,” he laughs, remembering. Before long, I meet Chad’s wife and daughter, who tell me about how they packed Chad’s box and other friends and family members who were deployed over the years through Operation Tango Mike.
Our conversation ends as Ginny pulls me aside once again. “I want you to meet Greg Hartman, one of our Gold Star Parents.” She talks with what sounds like a slight southern accent. “Do you know what a Gold Star is?”
I shake my head, “No. I’m sorry, I don’t.”
Greg steps into the conversation, allowing Ginny to slip away once again. “A Gold Star Parent is someone who lost a son or daughter while in the line of duty. He points to the small star pinned to his button shirt. “It’s something the government gives to the families,” he explains. Greg wipes his eye, something he’s done many times before, I imagine.
“I’m so sorry for your loss” are the only words I can find as reality sinks in.
Greg clears his throat, finding his voice again. “Thank you,” he smiles before beginning his story. His broad frame stands tall as he leans a little further into the wall of the hallway just in front of the long rows of empty boxes, somewhere between eighty to ninety boxes, all waiting to be filled and shipped. They’re the real purpose of tonight’s gathering. “When my son was killed, Tango Mike stepped up and helped out. My son was buried in Arlington, and the military paid for only the immediate family to attend the funeral and not the extended family. But Tango Mike raised funds to send the whole family to go to the funeral. They raised over $10,000. They covered airfare, hotel, everything for us.” Greg pauses again with emotion before sniffing and wiping his grey-blonde mustache and eyes.
“When did this happen?” I ask sympathetically.
“It was 2010,” he states matter-of-factly. “My son served two tours, one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, but changed his job and ended up in Pakistan, where it happened.” There’s chatter all around as more and more people show up, but in this moment, there’s peace, rest, and remembering, and no need to say a whole lot more. But Greg continues, “He was one of three men who were killed and two wounded,” he pauses. “There was a car driving behind the one my son was in, and they noticed it was acting weird,” Greg cleared his throat again before going on. “They stopped him by blocking the car before the bomb went off. It was headed for a school. If they hadn’t stopped it, it would have been so much worse.” Greg recounted the number of civilians killed and injured. “It was all over the news. It was a really big deal.”
I nod, remembering so many stories of our soldiers’ lives lost over the years. “Wow,” I stumble over my words. “So Operation Tango Mike really means a lot to you.” I state the obvious.
Greg’s eyes brighten, “Yeah, but not just for my family. They’ve raised money for three Gold Star Families now,” he continues. Our conversation continues for a bit longer, and I realize there aren’t enough good things to say about Operation Tango Mike and how it’s making a tangible difference in our community and for our soldiers and families.
Before long, it’s standing room only in the packing room. People continue to show up, and the crowd moves out into the hallway. It’s 6:00 pm, time to start packing boxes. But first, it’s time for people to celebrate with more tears, hugs, and stories of how Operation Tango Mike helped them or someone they know. Active servicemen stand in the back of the room nearest the large cake to show support. More speeches are given. Some people are crying, and all are grateful. It becomes clear that it’s impossible to leave the evening not touched or inspired in some way. A lump forms deep in my throat; I’m not the only one. Everyone is feeling the emotion as another plaque is presented to be added to the wall of thanks. Later that evening, I see Ginny’s office filled with notes, letters, plaques, banners, flags, and photos all over her walls, and desk overflowing out of the office and on the nearest outside wall, each telling a story, holding a memory and irreplaceable.
After some instructions for us first-timers, it’s time to choose a box and fill it. Everyone files out of the room, picks up an empty box, and forms a line in the adjacent room where large totes are filled to overflowing with food, hygiene product, snacks, games, socks, toys, movies, stationary, candy, hot sauce packets–anything you can imagine and so much more. This is when you get to be creative and choose what you want to go in your box. There are only two rules; every box must have a pair of socks, and every box must be completely full because the contents will be shared by more than just the person receiving it.
The evening comes to a close. Ginny, still full of smiles as more people find her to give gifts, checks, and cash, eventually pulls me aside one last time. We make our way down the familiar hallway, once lined with empty boxes, and walk into the sorting room before she begins. “You know, the bank offered me one room in the beginning, but you know they never shoulda let my foot in the door!” Ginny laughs.
“That reminds me,” I begin. “How did you get started in Operation Tango Mike?”
“It started when I was working at the probation department where they were already doing this. But pretty soon, it got too big, so I moved the packing to my house. Then one day, a lady found me and asked how I knew her son, who was deployed and was receiving boxes from me. I told her about Operation Tango Mike and explained that someone must have given us his name,” she continued. “The next day, I got a phone call from the same lady, and she said she worked for Umpqua Bank and was given permission for us to use one of their rooms for packing! And it’s rent-free and handicap accessible. We couldn’t ask for more. Please thank them for us in your write-up,”
I nod a promise. “And that’s how it began,” I smiled.
“Yep, and they never should have let me in because I now take up five rooms of the Umpqua Bank!” We laugh together. “And we have a use for every single one of these rooms,” she finishes. Ginny stands shorter than me but is giant in her spirit.
“This is what I wanted to show you.” Ginny points to a small wall filled with photos of servicemen and women who gave their ultimate sacrifice. “This is our Remembrance Wall.” Ginny gestures as she looks fondly at their familiar faces. It’s where friends and family can come and see their loved ones if they choose.” Ginny points to a photo and tells me another story of a community member blessed by Operation Tango Mike.
“Thank you, Ginny.” my words seem flat and hardly adequate. “Being here tonight has changed me.” I somehow find the words I really mean to say.
Ginny smiles, her dark red hair matching her firecracker get-it-done attitude, and her eyes soften in understanding.
“I’ll be back,” I promise as I wave goodbye.
Operation Tango Mike is an entirely nonprofit and hundred percent volunteer organization that is truly making a difference for the service men and women deployed. It’s also a chance for us–friends, family, and members of the community–to say thank you and remind those serving they aren’t forgotten here at home. If you have the time, the packing party happens every third Thursday of the month at 6:00 pm in the second story of the Umpqua Bank, and all ages and abilities are welcome. If you would like to donate supplies, contact Ginny or just show up on packing day. Ginny promises everything you donate is guaranteed to be used, and no monetary donation is too small. Operation Tango Mike also accepts donations for items to be auctioned to help raise funds for the ongoing costs of Operation Tango Mike. Each month, Operation Tango Mike raises around $2,000 for shipping costs. Also, if you know of a deployed serviceman or woman, local or not, contact Ginny, and she will add their name to the next month’s boxes. That’s her promise. Anything you do or donate truly makes a difference!
Contact Ginny Craven at:
(707)349-2838 or at