It was a “thank you” note from their son that started it all. In 2008, Steven and Linda Larsen of Ogden, Utah, heard from their youngest child, Christian, who was serving as a medic with the Utah National Guard’s Ghostriders task force in Kuwait.
“He wrote, ‘Thanks, Mom, for the cookies and socks and other goodies — I really appreciate it,’ ” Linda, 66, tells PEOPLE. “And then he added, ‘I’ve noticed there are four guys in my unit who don’t get any mail or care packages. They receive nothing. I’d sure like to help them.’ “
The next day, Linda put together four packages of socks, candy, baked goods and toiletries and shipped them off to Christian (known by his friends as “Fox”) to give to his comrades.
From there, Operation Adopt a Ghost (named by Christian after the Ghostriders) quickly grew and all 189 members of Christian’s unit started getting regular packages from his parents.
“Whenever word would come in that something was needed, we’d do our best to get it there,” Steven, 69, tells PEOPLE. “Whether it was sending soldiers sheets for their beds with extras for curtains, or rounding up a bunch of mousetraps, we found lots of people willing to help us get what was needed to make a difference.”
Then, in the summer of 2013, after their son came home from his latest deployment and returned to his job as a hospital shock trauma nurse, tragedy happened.
At age 29, Christian, who was quietly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, ended his life.
“He was still fighting the war when he came home,” says Linda, “and the stress of the situations he’d been in overseas was difficult for him to deal with. He didn’t talk much about it and was very quiet. He didn’t want to share the pain he was in.”
After burying their son (the Larsens also have another son and two daughters), it would have been easy for Linda and Steve to clean out the supplies in their garage and end Operation Adopt a Ghost. But Christian’s death gave their mission a new sense of urgency, says Steven.
“We decided that we had to keep going — there was no other choice,” he tells PEOPLE. “Chris would have wanted it that way and we wanted to honor him. We lost our son, but there are lots of other sons and daughters who need to know that someone is thinking of them.”
Today, with help from dozens of volunteers, the Larsens send care packages to about 1,200 soldiers a year, along with sponsoring special events for military families at home. Every Christmas, they hold a Sub for Santa drive for children of deployed soldiers, and they deliver Mother’s Day gift baskets to women who are running things alone on the home front.
Recently, they packed up hundreds of cool pops, Hawaiian shirts, beach balls and squirt guns and shipped them to Ghostriders braving hot temperatures in the Middle East.
“Chris would love that we’re doing that — these guys deserve to have some fun once in a while,” says Steven. “Our son was all about helping others — he showed us the way. We’re just following his example.”
Adds Linda, “When you think about it, we all make ripples in the water. As a tribute to our son, we want to keep those ripples going in the right direction.”