They say it's better to give than to receive. Linda Larsen's mind always seems to rest firmly on the recipient.
"No two boxes are alike, just like no two soldiers are alike," she said while kneeling on her kitchen floor, sifting through a package before it headed to the post office.
Larsen periodically transforms her small house - "850 square feet," she says with a laugh - into a base of operations for a group of friends and volunteers, all with one goal: filling cartons with kindness.
"We mostly have Iraq area, the Middle East," Larsen said. "And Afghanistan, they're having another push there, evidently. We have Northern Africa from time to time, and Kosovo still has soldiers. Our people in Korea are currently asking for support."
She's dedicated her life to filling boxes with little pieces of home, then shipping them to troops stationed around the globe. Rushing from room to room, there's no doubt that Larsen's the foreman of this little assembly line of affection, even though she says the idea was delivered by someone else.
"It wasn't mine, it was my son's when he was on his first deployment," she said. "He is a combat medic, and I was a compulsive mom who shipped to him every week."
A mother's love - which left her son Christian, best known by his callsign of "Fox," in a constant state of embarrassment.
"It's kind of like Christmas morning, and you've got four kids, and only three of them get presents. How would the fourth one feel?" Larsen said.
"He saw that there were people who didn't have any support from home. And I was telling people I work with, and they said 'Well, I'll be an uncle. I'll be a sister, I'll be a mom.'"
Her project is called Operation Adopt a Ghost, named for the group her son was stationed with, the Task Force Ghostriders. Larsen first began her shipments 11 years ago - last year, she says they shipped nearly a thousand boxes. Most are simply addressed to commanders and chaplains.
Each one of the thousand boxes is slightly different, depending on what Larsen has on hand - items like snacks, entertainment, or toiletries.
But one thing Larsen always wants to make sure she includes is a note from a child - on this particular day, her dining room table is surrounded with girls writing on stationary.
"They love knowing you're here, thinking about them," Larsen said, offering some words of encouragement from the doorway. "It means a lot to a soldier who's away from home, it really does."
About halfway into these 11 years, Larsen learned something that would have made most people leave this packing in the past.
"We all thought everything was good," Larsen said, thinking back on her son. "He was always very, very busy. But he succumbed to PTSD."
Larsen's son took his own life.
"None of us ever know the whole story, and none of us can ever do as much as we would like to do," she said with a sigh.
"I don't think I can ever describe it to anybody. There's a lot of parents and wives and sisters and brothers out there who are also dealing with these kinds of things. It's taken five years for me and my husband to even be able to talk about it in those terms."
She knew he dropped into danger, knew he rescued those in need - she was fully aware that a big part of his job was heading into hotspots to extract injured soldiers - but the true depths of what he experienced may simply remain a mystery.
"Everyone who's suffered loss in any way knows about the hauntings," Larsen said. "That they're not controllable, and even if they seek help, like the VA, or counseling through chaplains and all of that, some things just don't have answers. We don't have to know the answers to everything. Sometimes the heavens are silent."
There may not be any answers - but judging by the activity in her 850 square feet, silent is one thing her home will never be.
"It's an honor to him," Larsen said. "And it's an honor to every soldier that he served with."
It may be better to give than to receive - but one mother's learned that sometimes, the gift you get is even bigger than the one you gave.
"It's a new family," Larsen said, reflecting on the troops who've expressed their gratitude for her work. "These are my kids. They know when they come home, that we're still here. We're here now, and we'll be here then."
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