Some who joined Sears' gift card program for military families had to wait a long time for the cards to materialize.
In the TV commercials, amid dreamy images of smiling children and homesick soldiers, Sears asked Americans to "see how far a wish can go." The retail giant implored people to give their dollars to the company's gift card program, promising to use that money to help military families put " gloves on cold hands and shoes on needy feet."
Like thousands of other soldiers, Bruce Kelii signed up for the "Heroes at Home Wish Registry," hoping it would help his family make it through Christmas 2008 on a reduced income.
But the "Hero Dollars" he was promised didn't show up. No one at Sears could tell Kelii's wife, Barb, where their gift card was. At one point, the couple thought it had been misrouted to Iraq, where Bruce Kelii was a medical officer with the Minnesota National Guard's 834th Aviation Support Battalion.
Kelii came home in May, and the couple forgot about the nonexistent gift card until Sears sent them another letter about the program last month. Kelii contacted Whistleblower, whose inquiries to Sears resulted in the $182.58 gift card arriving Wednesday morning at the family home in Bloomington.
"I would love an explanation as to why none of the people at the customer service numbers could ever help us, and then mysteriously they can send us a card overnight," Barb Kelii said.
Sears spokesman Tom Aiello couldn't offer an explanation, but he said the Star Tribune's inquiry revealed that an "isolated" number of families had similar problems. He said about 50,000 military families have participated in the company's gift card giveaways since 2008.
"We do an awful lot for these military families," Aiello said. "I would hope that wouldn't be lost, for something that does so much good to be completely characterized by one incident like this."
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted a flood of charity for military families, almost always well-intentioned but not always hitting the mark. The "Heroes at Home" gift card program got off to a rocky start in the fall of 2008, when the Pentagon warned Sears that its original program appeared to violate its rules by limiting eligibility to lower-ranking enlisted service members. The program was opened to all active-duty military and started up again within a few weeks.
The gift cards are funded by shoppers at Sears, Kmart and affiliated stores, often when asked at the checkout if they want to pay a little more to help military families.
To qualify, active-duty military members must take the lead by registering their families for the gift cards. Sears said it raised $6.6 million for the gift cards in 2009, but Aiello declined to say whether Sears made money on the program. "That's not the intent of the program," he said.
When Barb Kelii found out about the program in 2008, she enthusiastically spread the word to the other 140 families who belong to the "Family Readiness Group" network she leads. Spc. Jan Thoms of Little Falls, whose husband was stationed in Iraq, used her card to buy sweaters, power tools, laundry detergent and a Christmas tree.
After his two-week leave at Christmas 2008, Bruce Kelii figured he might find the gift card in his military mailbox when he got back to Joint Base Balad, despite the absence of any Kmarts, Sears or Lands' End outlets in Iraq. It wasn't there. The Sears customer service people couldn't give Barb Kelii any information without knowing the gift card number.
Aiello said that after being contacted by Whistleblower, Sears identified a number of families who received letters telling them about money remaining on gift cards they never received or no longer had. He said the company wanted to expedite things for the Keliis.
"We had a solution in place," Aiello said. "It was going to take another couple of weeks to get out, but since she'd patiently waited for so long, we didn't think she should have to wait any longer."
Wednesday was the first time the Keliis knew how much they have to spend. They said they will probably save the gift card and use it for Christmas 2010.