Life on a forward operating base is dirty (no showers, only water bottles and baby wipes) and isolating. Supplies arrive via airdrops and internet connection can be fickle at best. On most military bases, deployed soldiers use WhatsApp to communicate with loved ones at home, but those living on remote ones are forced to make expensive, long-distance phone calls.
For those service members, seemingly antiquated calling cards remain the go-to.
Providing free talk time is the nonprofit Cell Phones for Soldiers. With more than 4,500 drop-off locations nationwide, the organization accepts donated devices: The newest are sold for market value, and the oldest are scraped for precious metals. (More below on the ones in between.) Profit from those sales goes towards purchasing calling card minutes. During the height of the troop surge in the Middle East, Cell Phones for Soldiers sent more than 15,000 calling cards each week.
With the number of deployed troops decreasing in recent years, Cell Phones for Soldiers has expanded its services to serve veterans here at home. It works with all the major wireless providers to give free airtime — more than 500,000 minutes each month — to former service members.
As for those donated cell phones that are in good enough shape to be used? They’re given to vets, too. By the end of 2017, the organization hopes to sign up 100,000 veterans for free cell phones and service.
Bruce Jewett, a 55-year-old veteran living in Vermont describes the phone he received from the organization as “a godsend” and says that it helps him manage the 10 to 12 doctors’ appointments he has each month to treat his shoulder and back problems.
The organization also issues one-time $500 grants to service members who find themselves in a financial hardship, such as being unable to afford rent, dental bills or car repairs.