-- Shoeboxes wrapped in cheery Christmas paper are stacked eye-high in a corner of Pat Jacobs's small living room, even blocking the front door.
The packages, destined for troops serving in Afghanistan, hold small items whose absence is deeply felt at desert and mountain bases with no PXs nearby. Socks, disposable razors, paperback books, and salty and sweet snacks are stuffed into boxes inversely proportional in size to the rank of their recipients. The bigger boxes are labeled for privates, the smaller ones for officers.
Pat Jacobs didn't start out to play Santa Claus to about 700 soldiers serving with her son, Scott, in his unit of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. But after he started e-mailing her requests from his buddies, it snowballed into a project that has consumed most of the year.
"What other female has got 700 sons?" said Jacobs, 54, who has had to work seven days a week cleaning houses to buy enough gifts for everyone in the unit, making up the shortfall that donations do not cover.
"It ain't about me. What it's about is, the soldiers in Afghanistan will not be like the boys of the Vietnam era. They won't be forgotten. I won't let them be forgotten."
For all the magnetized Support Our Troops ribbons stuck on the backs of automobiles, much of the actual support has fallen on the shoulders of a slender segment of society. Donations to Jacobs's shoebox project, for example, have been made largely by a few family friends, local fraternal groups and churches, and veterans who remember what a package from home means.
And most of the donors are from right here in Culpeper, a town of about 10,000 people 70 miles southwest of the White House. For them, it was a chance to show their gratitude to the troops.
When Kitty Whitman read a story about Jacobs in the local paper, she asked members of her tiny Episcopal church to fill 20 shoeboxes.
Instead, they prepared 30. The inspiration, she said, was Jacobs.
"She's a ball of fire with a mission," said Whitman, the wife of a retired Air Force colonel. "She makes you want to get off your derriere and support the guys in Afghanistan so they will know this Christmas that a little spot on the map called Culpeper, Virginia, didn't forget them."
A black POW-MIA flag flies beneath the American flag on a pole in Jacobs's front yard, reflecting her deep military roots. Her father was a drill sergeant. She has three brothers, each of whom served in one of three service branches. When she graduated from high school in 1969, most of the boys she grew up with shipped out to Vietnam; many never returned.
Now, Jacobs keeps a photograph of her 29-year-old son, dressed in desert camouflage, in a plastic envelope sewn onto a blue pillow embroidered with red and white stars and the motto, "My Hero."
Her only child grew up knowing he wanted to be a soldier. As a toddler, Scott Jacobs wore a little toy helmet. When he was a boy, he built a camouflaged barracks in the back yard that still stands. He was only 16 when he pre-enlisted in the Army, joining as soon as he graduated from Culpeper High School in 1994.
Initially in the 1st Cavalry Division, his first overseas deployment was in Kuwait, where he guarded the border for several months in 1996. He left the Army the following year, became a sheriff's deputy and joined the Army Reserve. But when a recruiter called him shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, he was ready to rejoin the service.
Assigned to the Army's 173rd Airborne, he was stationed first in Vicenza, Italy. In February, his unit was deployed to Afghanistan.
The soldiers have faced snipers and roadside bombs. Six weeks ago, Scott Jacobs narrowly escaped death when a roadside bomb exploded a split second before he would have driven his Humvee over it, he told his mother.
From the beginning of his deployment, Pat Jacobs sent her son care packages every two weeks, filled with socks, food, vitamins and history books. He would share them with others in his unit and later began to e-mail requests: a pair of socks for one buddy, a bottle of eyedrops for another, extra socks for yet another.
"He knew all he had to do was tell mom," Jacobs said.
The care packages kept growing larger and larger, and friends gave her a few extra items for each shipment. Soon she was sending five or six boxes at a time, each weighing at least 20 pounds.
But Jacobs thought she could do still more. At first it seemed a pipe dream, but she decided to put together Christmas packages for all 700 soldiers in the unit. In March, she started collecting boxes from a local shoe store, stockpiling them in the attic that once was Scott's bedroom.
Initially, about 10 friends helped her by buying a few things for the boxes. The local chapter of a Vietnam veterans organization donated some items and money for postage, as did the American Legion post, several Ruritan clubs and the Moose lodge.
Jacobs put donation boxes at four local businesses, where customers have dropped off plastic bags of inexpensive items. A sign pasted to each box says "Support Our Troops in Afghanistan."
As guidance, Jacobs put together a checklist of suggested items that, taken together, hint at a soldier's lot in Afghanistan. Among them are foot powder, sunscreen, lip balm, pipe cleaners to use for cleaning weapons, fly swatters, extra-strength headache medicine, trail mix and jerky strips.
Scott's former bedroom has been transformed into her workroom. Several card tables are laden with containers of puzzle books, batteries, socks, razors, toothpaste and toothbrushes, candy canes and bubble gum, cans of potato chips and envelopes of hot chocolate. Into each box she places a small felt Christmas stocking filled with candy and a miniature folded American flag donated by the American Legion Auxiliary. She also packs a tiny Christmas tree in most boxes, and puts pine cones and birdhouses in the rest for soldiers who are not Christians.
At one end of the room is a large table where she wraps not only each shoebox but several of the small items she places inside each box, figuring that it adds to the fun of Christmas to have several packages to rip open.
She also includes a Christmas card addressed "To One of Our Heroes."
Where the label says "From," she just wrote three letters: USA.
"It's all they need to know," she said. "It's from home."
Jacobs plans to mail the packages within the next week. The post office tells her it will take that long to guarantee delivery by Christmas.
Postage for all 700 boxes, each weighing about five pounds, is expected to run more than $3,000.
"I've gotten donations, and I've got a credit card," Jacobs said. "I'll run her to the max."
Last month, Jacobs learned that one of the boxes would no longer be needed. One of the soldiers was killed.