After 17 years, Sam Lombardo’s Cookies for Our Troops still shipping goodwill to overseas soldiers
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that features Alle-Kiski Valley people and the notable things that they do.
Sam Lombardo continues to help make tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives a little easier overseas.
For the past 17 years, battalions and other units stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, Kuwait and other parts of the world received care packages through his Cookies for Our Troops program.
The boxes contain candy bars, toothbrushes, toiletries, freeze pops and other “luxuries” like popcorn machines, funnel cake makers and dog treats for military dogs.
“You want to keep a Marine happy,” Lombardo said, “send them soft toilet paper.”
During the holidays, the packages contain handmade Christmas stockings.
Every month, like clockwork, he receives donations, including a $5 check from a woman in Vandergrift to support the effort.
“Everybody has a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, an aunt or an uncle who were in the service,” Lombardo said about the support. “They’re very loyal to our United States Army.”
Lombardo builds his list of recipients from requests from residents in the Alle-Kiski Valley. The entire units of those Alle-Kiski soldiers often make use of the packages as well.
Lombardo’s efforts were rewarded with thousands of thank-you letters, many with photos of soldiers eating the snacks. He also received several commendations and flags, including one flown in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.
“The gifts are nice; the letters bring a smile to my face,” Lombardo said.
He was nearly a soldier himself, but a left knee injury prevented him from being drafted during the Vietnam War.
“I went down, took my physical. I didn’t have bone spurs,” Lombardo said, referring to reason President Trump received a draft deferment. “Vietnam was going hot and heavy, and they said they didn’t want me.”
Lombardo, 71, graduated from New Kensington High School in 1966. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Youngstown State in 1970. He grew up in New Kensington and moved to Mt. Lebanon with his wife, Virginia.
He said he received several requests from national media outlets to do stories about his charity, and declined them all in order to keep everything centered around the Alle-Kiski Valley.
“The only people who got stories were the Valley News Dispatch and Greensburg (Tribune-Review),” he said. “We were worried that if it got too large, we couldn’t handle it. If you stay and work at a nice pace, you can take care of 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers.
“If it would have gone nationwide, we would have gotten so much money because of all these stories. That’s when you get in to trouble — when you have that kind of money.”
The Lombardo family owned and operated Sam’s Pop & Beer Shop in Arnold for almost a century.
Lombardo’s grandfather, Nunzio Lombardo, started the business in 1927. It was taken over by Lombardo’s father, Sam Lombardo Sr., when Nunzio Lombardo retired.
“If you’re a resident of this Valley, you know about us, and I guess we’ve been very good people,” Lombardo said. “I certainly hope so. People just walk in and hand me money to make sure I take care of the soldiers.”
Lombardo said he was first inspired to start sending care packages after one of his regular customers, a military police officer from the New Kensington-based Army Reserve Center, came into the shop one day, in full uniform, seeking libations for a gathering prior to deployment.
The visit took place shortly after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks.
“He said, ‘They’re going to ship us out of here in a week,” Lombardo said. “I said, ‘If you need anything, let me know.”
Lombardo was able to organize a going-away party with plenty of food and refreshments with help from some friends and local businesses.
That night would spark a passion, and conversation with friend and Vietnam veteran Denny Gianotti would provide an idea: to keep the party going for all troops.
Gianotti told Lombardo how happy it made him and his fellow soldiers to get cookies from home.
They announced their intentions about starting an organization to help the soldiers, people turned out in droves and the rest was history.
The hardest package to ship in all those years was a cotton candy machine.
Lombardo said he tried three times and spent close to $300 to send it to Afghanistan, only to be told the area he was sending it to was “too dangerous” for it.
The family recently sold the pop shop to former business consultant Terry Madden of Irwin.
Lombardo’s still in the process of moving donations and other related items from the shop.
Donations and information about soldiers in need can be sent to Cookies for Our Troops at P.O. Box 3101, Arnold, PA 15068.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.