Sergeant Jeff Mahaffey knows very well how difficult it can be for a Marine to get his hands on the supplies he needs.
In June 2010, Mahaffey led a group of 15 Marines and one corpsman to inspect a village in Musa Qaleh, Afghanistan, on what was supposed to be a short mission. But suddenly, the sergeant and his men found themselves in a desperate ambush, badly outnumbered by a large group of Taliban.
Mahaffey was shot in the back as he assisted a wounded Marine. Fortunately, his body armor did its job and stopped the bullet. The armor also was effectively destroyed, however, and two weeks later, with the fight at Musa Qaleh still raging, Mahaffey was still trying to wear it. Cut off, his men were running out of everything else as well.
"In a situation like that," Mahaffey said, "supplies tend to get a little scarce."
Getting necessary supplies isn't much easier for many other U.S. soldiers and Marines, even the ones in the relative stability of forward bases or stationed in the United States. Mahaffey was told back at his base that his unit could not replace the $800 armor plate he needed. Other Marines there suffered from a wide range of supply shortages.
The problem is getting worse: Despite the U.S. military's "draw down" from Afghanistan and Iraq, federal budget cuts—some mandated by the so-called sequester—bureaucratic red tape, and supply chain inefficiency can make obtaining badly needed gear difficult or impossible for many American troops.
'I Was Shocked'
TroopsDirect, an organization that fills custom orders from servicemen and women in the field, at sea and on U.S. bases, has seen requests from troops shoot up 300 percent in the last three months, according to Aaron Negherbon, founder and executive director of the San Ramon, Calif.-based nonprofit.
"As a civilian, I thought that everything that servicemen needed in the battle space would be provided to them," said Negherbon, whose organization provided Mahaffey's unit with equipment it could not acquire through its military supply chain. "I was shocked. And when you get that first email back from a soldier that says, 'You saved lives with that item,' how do you stop?"
In two years of existence, TroopsDirect has shipped more than 184,000 pounds of supplies to military recipients, all of it free of charge. The organization takes donations through its website at www.troopsdirect.org, and works with corporate and brand sponsors such as Volvo Penta, REI, Danner Boots, Gatorade, Clif Bar, the American Trucking Associations and several others.
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The organization has fulfilled requests for a massive range of material: body armor, protective eyewear, tracheotomy kits, stretchers, holsters, gloves, supplies for military dogs, chalk used for marking roadside bombs and more.
In TroopsDirect's last fiscal year, which it closed at the end of June, it spent more than 90 cents of every dollar it raised on items provided to U.S. troops. That marked an improvement on 87 cents from the year prior. Its budget in the recently closed fiscal year was $750,000.
'My Corpsmen Need Stethoscopes'
A brigade from one state sent a June email to TroopsDirect pleading for gauze, saline flushes, syringes, burn dressings, non-latex gloves, goggles, helmet padding and a "Ranger Medic Handbook," among other items.
Another message from the same brigade reveals the frustration of dealing with the organizational and supply chain snags that sometimes crop up in the military.
"We have requested most of these items from our state and they have told us that either they would not provide it for us or that it would be provided here" at a camp where the brigade is preparing to deploy, the email said. However, the camp then told the brigade that it could not provide what was needed "and that our state needs to provide it to us. Other items were given to us and do not work with our mission or with the rest of our equipment, and we have been told that it cannot be replaced."
TroopsDirect takes requests via email, satellite phone and even on its Facebook page if the unit is one the nonprofit has dealt with before, Negherbon said. Requests typically come from officers or non-commissioned officers who are contacting TroopsDirect on behalf of their unit.
"They say, 'We need soap, because they don't issue it here. We need toothpaste. We need foot powder. My corpsmen need stethoscopes because they were all destroyed in transit and the supply chain can't get any to us,'" Negherbon said.
TroopsDirect works with a vast network of suppliers and prefers to have them ship directly to military units in order to save money, but the organization also receives, bundles and ships items itself. TroopsDirect inspects products in its own warehouse when it's working with a supplier for the first time. Shipments are carried out by the U.S. Postal Service. Because of the nature of the work, shipments often must be carried out overnight.
Negherbon, who previously worked in property management, said he's found his life calling. "This is what's important now," he said.
As for Sergeant Mahaffey, he eventually got the body armor he needed, and he credits TroopsDirect with supplying equipment to other Marines in his unit. He was awarded the Bronze Star after the fight at Musa Qaleh, and plans to leave the service next month.
"I got tired of telling my parents, 'I'm getting ready to deploy again,''' he told CNBC over the phone from Twentynine Palms, Calif. "I'm leaving here, getting my degree and going home to Chicago."