MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Sandboxx connects military families by converting messages into letters.
Connecting our Military
Less than a hundred miles of California highway separate Patrick Bellor’s home in Orange County from his son James’ platoon at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. To the proud but wistful dad, it can feel like opposite ends of the earth.
During the 13-week initiation ritual that is boot camp, recruits like James forego the conveniences of an interconnected world—no calls, texts, chats, emails, posts—often creating a digital chasm.
“So close yet so far,” says Patrick, an IT manager for a large Southern California utility. “That can make it even more frustrating.”
According to Patrick, nothing has helped the Bellors close that distance more than Sandboxx, an iPhone app designed by veterans to support the 200,000 military families who at any given time are separated by training and deployment. The app helps loved ones create and send old-fashioned physical letters, simplifying the process of staying connected to a service member who is off the grid.
When Patrick’s thoughts turn to James—a cross-country runner in high school, a saxophonist in the marching band—he launches Sandboxx and taps out a message, just as he would a text or email. He might share a joke or a football score, a word of support, or a kick in the pants.
Sandboxx archives it all:
“Remember, it will be excruciatingly difficult,” Patrick wrote during the first week. “That’s what you want it to be.”
“Hard is what makes the journey worth it,” he wrote during the third. “Because you are the strongest man I have ever known.”
By week 11: “You were born great. Now it is time to achieve that greatness.”
Sandboxx prints out the text (and a photo, if desired), which it then overnights via FedEx to nearly a dozen U.S. training facilities, covering the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Marines. Since it came online in 2014, some 550,000 people have used the app to send more than 1.75 million pieces of mail.
“Sandboxx is connectivity,” says cofounder and CEO Sam Meek, a former Marine Corps sergeant who was born on Veterans Day. (The app’s name comes from military slang for “Iraq.”)
Anyone could of course send a letter without the help of an app. But given the inherent stresses and disruptions of military life, Sandboxx’s mission is to “remove the friction,” says Meek, who served two tours in Iraq.
That means anticipating impediments that can stymie handwritten communications, from preloading the military’s sometimes complex addresses (with their battalions and companies and platoons) to enclosing a stamped return envelope for the recipient.
“I need instant gratification,” says Patrick, who has purchased several $99 plans, which include credits for 35 letters. He sometimes even gets a letter back on the occasions that James is not too depleted to put pen to paper.
Sandboxx ended up filling a void for Patrick—one that was amplified by the passing last December of his wife, Mary Catherine, after a battle with ovarian cancer. Suddenly, he was left to parent their two boys, 18-year-old James and 19-year-old Mason, on his own.
“There’s four of us, then there’s three, and now...” Patrick pauses. “Well, you know, he is going into an elite fighting force. That’s their job, to go into harm’s way.”
Having an app at his fingertips that allows him to channel encouragement to his future marine at a moment’s notice has eased the separation.
With just a couple of weeks to go before James’ November graduation—and their first face-to-face meeting since summer—Patrick sits at his kitchen table and taps out one final message.
“I can’t wait to see you,” he writes. He ends with a familiar closing: