Dateline NEW CASTLE, Del. — Volunteers with Operation Air Conditioner today are mailing 500 pairs of combat boots to American troops serving in Iraq. After today's shipment, the ad hoc nonprofit group will have shipped about 3,600 pairs of the desert-ready boots to U.S. service men and women.
Operation AC started in 2003 when Frankie Mayo received a letter from her son, an MP serving in Iraq, complaining about the summer heat there. She bought an air conditioner and shipped it to his unit. Things kind of snowballed from there as Mayo realized that other units serving in Iraq had a similar need. She started raising more money and buying more air conditioners. With the help of a growing number of volunteers, Operation AC has shipped about 8,000 air conditioners and 14,000 heaters for the troops. The group has raised and spent about $2.3 million — with $300,000 of that going for postage and shipping costs and the rest used to purchase the equipment.
Edward Kenney of The [Del.] News Journal has the whole story.
Frankie Mayo is a hero. Donating to Operation Air Conditioner is money well-spent and a good way to "support the troops."
That's only, of course, for those who are really interested in supporting the troops and not just in giving themselves the warm fuzzies by putting an ugly magnet on their SUV and thinking that this somehow helps in a meaningful way and is not simply a sad and desperate attempt to make themselves feel better about their own insubstantial patriotism by maligning that of others, i.e., those others who do not have such a sticker on their own vehicles.
What the …? Combat boots? The U.S. military needs to rely on private charity and civilian volunteers to supply the troops with combat boots?
Apparently $87 billion + $80 billion isn't enough to pay for combat boots. Apparently the Department of Defense, despite having a budget larger than the defense budgets of the rest of the entire world combined, can't afford to keep it's soldiers shod. Maybe they could've if they hadn't, you know, misplaced $8.8 billion. (More good news from Iraq: U.S. officials are fairly confident they know what happened to 90 percent of the $87 billion they've spent there.)
I'm glad Operation AC is helping out, but, again, combat boots? Isn't this really something the military ought to be supplying on its own? And if it's not, shouldn't some officers be going all Matthew Broderick in Glory, trashing supply closets and tearing up paychecks until their troops are properly equipped with decent shoes?
Charitable efforts like Operation AC have built-in limitations and inefficiencies. Specifically, they end up paying retail for everything.
This is the canned-food-drive model. Canned food drives are great. It's nice to get disparate members of the community pitching in to restock the shelves at the local pantry. But all those donated cans were purchased at retail prices, which means the total cost of restocking those shelves was a lot higher than it needed to be considering the volume of goods. That cost difference is, in essence, a subsidy the charity is paying to the local supermarkets. (That subsidy helps to explain why those supermarkets are always so enthusiastic to support and promote the canned food drives.)
Operation AC has gotten big enough and garnered/generated enough publicity that they probably get a decent price on air conditioners and heaters. But what about those nice new Altama boots the volunteers worked hard to ship today?
One hopes the shoemaker offers the nonprofit a bulk and/or charitable discount. But corporations rarely do such things without milking the gesture for as much positive PR as possible. The company Web site isn't very up to date, but there's no press release about donated boots. Only investor-oriented releases like this one boasting of Altama's $19 million boot contract with the military. (Apparently the DoD is buying some combat boots — just not enough of them.)
The point here is that relying on charities to supply the troops at retail prices is a stupid, inefficient, wasteful and dangerous way to run a war. This hardly compares to some of the larger, deadlier consequences of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's epic incompetence, but it's one more item for the list.
The fiscally prodigal Bush Administration might not understand my complaint about the wastefulness of paying retail. It is, for this administration, a matter of official policy. Bush's prescription drug bill, for example, made it illegal for the government to negotiate for lower prices despite becoming the largest single consumer of prescription medicines on the planet. The canned-food-drive principle helps explain that multi-billion dollar squandering of the taxpayers' money. But where supermarkets might benefit from a few hundred dollars as an unintended side effect, the billions that pharmaceutical companies will reap as their taxpayer-funded subsidy is by no means unintended.
And but so anyway — our soldiers don't have freaking combat boots?