By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Some are frail, their bodies riddled with arthritis. Others are confined to walkers or wheelchairs.
Spread out across the country is a small army of old ladies determined to do their part in the war on terror. Their weapons of choice: scissors and coupons.
They cut out a couple hundred each day, a few thousand a week, and send them to military families in the Middle East and elsewhere overseas, who redeem them at commissaries. It may not seem like much, the ladies say, but every little bit counts.
In a new era of American warfare, when people are told to support the war effort by boosting the economy by shopping or simply by going on with their lives, these women think more should be done. They are from an older generation that remembers the days of war bonds and rations, and they are trying again to make a difference, one coupon at a time.
Lila Sclawy, 87, started clipping shortly after her husband, a veteran, died in 2001 of pancreatic cancer. Four weeks later, she turned on the news to see the World Trade Center crashing down.
As the country grieved, she was looking for a way to overcome her grief. That's when she heard about the coupon ladies in Greenbelt.
They meet every Tuesday in the musty upstairs room at American Legion Post #136. Each woman brings a heaping bundle of newspaper scraps gathered from their neighbors. For hours, they comb through the coupons, sorting them by denomination -- 25 cents off, 30 cents, a dollar -- so they can keep track of how much they're sending in each box.
The coupons are honored up to six months past expiration at overseas bases, where base officials distribute them to the spouses and children of troops who sometimes struggle to make ends meet on military salaries.
It is fulfilling work, the women say, and they have letters of gratitude from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Japan to show for it. It also gives them an excuse to gather. While they cut, count and sort, they talk, a chatty discussion that meanders from beauty tips to husbands and grandchildren and eventually to their memories of wartime.
They talk about the days when their families would stretch their rations of sugar and meat, and when they wrote letters to soldiers.
Most of the women are part of the American Legion Auxiliary, wives of veterans who served during America's wars. But a few served in the military themselves. And for many of them, World War II was when they discovered what every generation inevitably learns about war -- it is brutal.
World War II was the one that put its mark on everyone who lived through it, said Sclawy, one of the oldest members of the coupon clippers. It was also the first war in which women could serve with the Army in jobs beyond nursing.
Two of Sclawy's brothers were already serving by 1943. So Sclawy, a secretary from a small town in Pennsylvania, enlisted as a private in what would become the Women's Army Corps.
Her first job was to help new recruits training to be shipped to the European front sign up for life insurance. The policies were worth $10,000, no small sum at the time, she said, but even then, it seemed too little for a man's life.
It wasn't until a year later that she saw the men coming back and the results of the war abroad. Training at an Army hospital in Indiana, she saw an amputee in a wheelchair being pushed by a blind man. The man with no legs would call out directions to the man pushing from behind.
"That's when I first got the sense of what war does to people, to able-bodied men and their families," she said recently while clipping coupons at home.
Now, in the twilight of her life, such memories linger as she watches television for news from Iraq and Afghanistan. Such memories are why, she believes, coupon clipping has become popular among many senior citizens.
At her retirement home, the Riderwood Community in Silver Spring, the clipping has blossomed into a small movement. After she moved there four years ago, other women saw her clipping and joined in. An unofficial club sprang up at the tables in the lobby. Some women showed up as early as 5 a.m. and clipped well into the afternoon. Others carried the coupons with them, clipping over breakfast, at lunch in the local pub, alone in their apartments at night.
Core members of the clipping club found coupons stacked outside their apartments, slid under their doors and stuffed into their mailbox cubbyholes, said Grace Harr, 75, who in recent years has become an unofficial leader of the Riderwood group.
"This is what we grew up doing," Harr said. "It's something we can do to make a difference."
When other retirement homes heard about it, the Riderwood group started getting letters from seniors in Texas and Pennsylvania who wanted to start their own groups. Now, more than half of the coupons shipped by the Greenbelt American Legion post come from Riderwood.
Nationally, no one keeps a complete record of all coupons sent to overseas bases, but the American Legion Auxiliary's national office in Indianapolis says it mails as much as $54 million worth of coupons a year.
Locally, the Greenbelt group sent almost half a million dollars in coupons last year. And they believe the recent explosion of clipping at Riderwood will make this a record year.
Time, however, has taken a toll on the group. Some have passed away. Others have become hampered by health problems.
Three years ago, Sclawy found she could no longer climb the stairs to the Tuesday meetings at the American Legion post. So, with the help of a walker and a friend, she kept working from a table on the ground floor. Then winter came, making it impossible for her to maneuver her walker across the ice and snow in the parking lot, so she sent in her work from home.
These days, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome have slowed her work from 20 hours a week to five or six. Still, most days she sits in front of her television with a small pile of coupons next to her sofa chair and clips until a numbness in her fingers tells her to stop.
Every little piece helps a military family save money, but more than that, she said, "it shows them that somebody back home is thinking of them."
"The only thing it costs us is time," she said. "And we have plenty of that now."