Hyman "Big Hy" Strachman sits hunched over a work table in his modest Massapequa apartment, his long, knobby fingers dexterously filing more than 30 DVDs into a packing envelope.
When he's satisfied that the package is perfectly shaped, he takes out a roll of clear packing tape and wraps it around each edge of the package until it's a solid, impenetrable and shiny rectangle.
"You can't have them lumpy," Strachman said about the packages, of which he sends out about six a week. "I like to have everything flat. It takes time, actually, but you want to make it nice."
For the past 11 years, Strachman, 93, has taken on the time-consuming task of buying, packaging and shipping hundreds of thousands of DVDs to U.S. troops overseas. He works at it every day -- including Christmas -- and sometimes gets up in the middle of the night to package another shipment, worried that he hasn't sent enough.
Strachman, a World War II veteran who later was a stockbroker on Wall Street, started "Big Hy for Heroes" a year before his wife, Harriet, died in 2003. Over the years, it has not only helped him fill a void, but also kept him active and sharp-witted, he said.
Many of the heroes who receive Strachman's packages call him by the same name.
William Ash, a master sergeant with the Army's 864th Engineer Battalion deployed to Afghanistan in January, estimates Strachman has sent his camp at least 300 DVDs. He said they are used to host movie nights and are passed around to the roughly 800 personnel in his battalion.
"About a month or two ago, I sent an email to [Strachman] thanking him for his support and also told him that he was just as much a hero as I," Ash said, adding that the movies are a welcome form of distraction for the troops. "It is always great getting mail from back home reminding us that America has our backs and has not forgotten about us."
Changing up their method
In Strachman's one-bedroom apartment, the walls are covered in military memorabilia -- photos, thank-you notes, flags and proclamations -- from the people he has served and those recognizing his service. Strachman moved his bed (dressed in a comforter that looks like fatigues) into the living room so he could use his bedroom for more storage.
"When I started doing the movies, it filled up, he said of his bedroom. "I moved the bed to fit the project."
Strachman is not an army of one. His son, Arthur Strachman, 58, who also lives in Massapequa, acts as his "fingers" for email correspondence with the troops, which is substantial. He also does the purchasing, though his father consults on the movie titles.
Until early last year, Strachman had been using a machine he bought online to make copies of bootleg movies he sent to the troops. But he began to worry about the possible ramifications of breaking copyright law and got rid of the machine, father and son said, though they were never contacted by the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade association that represents the six major Hollywood movie studios.
"Once, there were police in the building for something and I thought, 'They're coming for me,' " Strachman said, laughing at the memory.
Now, the Strachmans purchase movies solely from eBay, which Arthur Strachman said is effective and more affordable since many sellers lower their prices when he explains what he's doing. Between the cost of DVDs and shipping, he estimated that his father has spent about $55,000 since "Big Hy for Heroes" began.
'The least I could do'
After seeing a published report in the past year that mentioned Strachman was producing copies of "The Hangover," actor Zach Galifianakis, one of the movie's stars, sent him a package with hundreds of copies of the movie.
As is their way, the Strachmans sent an immediate response to thank him, explain the impact his generosity would have, and politely imply he send more. Galifianakis has sent hundreds more copies of his movies ever since, the Strachmans said, some of them autographed.
Other donors have moved the effort along, as well. Last year, Strachman contacted Redbox, the video rental company, and persuaded officials there to donate 10,000 DVDs, which the company sent directly to the nonprofit United Service Organization (USO), which supports troops.
Arthur Strachman said that one of the things that makes "Big Hy for Heroes" so successful is his father's personal touch and his unique gift at inspiring goodness in others.
"Nobody could hold a candle to my father," Arthur Strachman said. "He's the nicest, most nonjudgmental person you could meet. Somehow that comes through to people, to the soldiers, and they let their defenses down with him."
The certified flags that hang in Strachman's apartment -- there are 10 of them now and at least two on the way -- are sent as tokens of gratitude from soldiers serving in Afghanistan and at one point Iraq.
Before his battalion returns home later this year, Ash said he is trying to fly the flag he plans to send to Strachman on as many missions as possible.
"It is the least I could do after all 'Big Hy' has done for us over the past 10 or so years," he said.
Letters from troops
Over the years, Hy Strachman has received hundreds of thank you notes from the troops who receive his DVDs. A few excerpts from some of those letters:
"I wanted to write and say thank you for providing so much entertainment and peace of mind. Knowing that folks back home are thinking of us, it means the world. Thank you."
"It has been great receiving movies from you during the deployment and truly an honor getting to know a little about your piece of the world. Thank you not only for the DVDs, but for your service as well; you too are a great American Hero in the truest sense of the word!"
"It means so much that one generation of vets cares so much for the current one. . . . Movie nights mean a lot to the troops here . . . For a couple of hours, we can feel like life is normal on a Friday night."
"You may not realize it, but your generosity goes beyond simply donating a few items every month. The Mental Health Clinic strives to reduce the stigma associated with seeking care . . . By providing us with items, it provides them with reasons to come into our clinic . . . They grab some free stuff, some info on healthy self-care, and learn what their resources are. After we build a rapport with them, they begin to talk about their daily life stressors and more significant topics such as combat stress."