Two sisters waited patiently Thursday in York for the arrival of someone they'd never met, although he was already very special to them.
"Today we get to meet our hero," said Daphne Gallagher, 70, of York.
She and her sister, Mary Murtagh, 72, of Indian Land awaited a visit from Army Reserves Capt. Bill Williams, who was traveling to York to meet in person and thank the sisters who mailed supplies to him and about 1,200 other soldiers serving in Afghanistan this year.
The sisters met Williams through the website anysoldier.com, where troops post their contact information and needs, and then people "adopt" them.
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"Waiting for him was like waiting for a long-lost child," Gallagher said while standing at the Walgreens in York with her sister and Williams, an infectiously positive man full of jokes and cheer.
The York stop was part of a 10,000 mile journey around the United States for Williams. He plans to thank about 60 people who shipped supplies overseas and brightened the days of the soldiers with whom he served.
After getting home from the war zone about seven weeks ago, Williams, 52, told his wife he wanted to visit the people who sent packages "and say thank you, because I don't they think they understand just how much what they send means to the troops."
He figured he could make additional stops while visiting relatives in different states.
"I pulled out the map and got online and plotted this whole thing," he said.
He started out in his hometown of Syracuse, Utah, near Salt Lake City, and is currently on his way to Florida, where he'll see his baby granddaughter for the first time. He hopes to finish the trip in January.
Three years of support
Three years ago, the sisters began collecting goods and sending them to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan through anysoldier.com.
Snacks, toiletries, sunblock, reading material, hand warmers, gum, blankets, clothing and, lately, Christmas decorations are common requests. Beanie Babies, bubbles, and a disco ball are other items Williams and his men have enjoyed.
"They made my war," Williams said of the sisters.
Gallagher said a room in her apartment "looks like Wal-Mart." In November alone she and her sister shipped out 11 boxes.
"We love it. It's so much fun," Murtagh said.
When they first started collecting the supplies, the sisters asked several stores in York if they were willing to help. Walgreens was the only business interested, she said.
Store clerks ask customers at checkout whether they would like to buy something small for soldiers overseas, usually candy bars or toiletries. After they collect several boxes, they call Gallagher to come get them.
"We are a vehicle for our customers and the people of York to do something small that amounts to something big," said Melinda Raymond, manager of the Walgreens on East Liberty Street.
Gallagher and her sister pay to ship the goods overseas.
It's something they decided to do until "our guys are home," Gallagher said. "It's almost like you begin to feel like they're your children."
Williams transformed the exchange into a friendship, the sisters said. He sent thank-you cards, thoughtful letters that inspired tears and even necklaces with hearts cut of Afghanistan's sparkling, blue lapis stone.
He also sent the sisters a few unusual, fun requests.
Once Williams, who says he strives to be in good spirits all the time, dared the sisters to have some fun doing something they normally would not do. He asked them to photograph themselves wearing red clown noses while out in public or eating in a restaurant.
In return, he has promised to wear a green nose while on leave in Ireland and send them pictures of his shenanigans.
Standing together for the first time at Walgreens, the three laughed at the memories they've already shared and swapped stories like old friends - exactly what Williams says he's finding everywhere he stops to say thanks.
He's made two sisters very proud.
"He's been so caring and so considerate and actually thanking us when they're the ones over there laying their lives on the line," Gallagher said. "Now that's an exceptional man."