Joshua Cruse was serving in the U.S. Army and stationed in Bosnia in 1998 when he found himself taking a much needed break in a tent where some of his fellow comrades were smoking cigars. Sitting around in the tent, everyone was in t-shirts. With no visible designation of military rank, it was just a group of guys. They could have just as well been sitting in a garage in Milwaukee tinkering with a car engine or shooting pool in a bar in Key West. It was there on that Balkan Peninsula that the Lafayette, Louisiana, born and raised Cruse was first introduced to the world of premium cigars. A comrade handed him a mild Churchill Connecticut stogie and showed him the proper way to cut the cigar and light it. After the cigar break was over and the uniform shirts went back on, Cruse realized that it was an Army General who’d handed him his first cigar. “Imagine my shock—but at that moment it was just a bunch of guys smoking cigars,” he told me while manning the counter at his Casper, Wyoming store. “It broke down the enlisted and officer barrier; it was just a bunch of guys making the best of a crappy situation.”
The authenticity and power of that bonding moment in the middle of a mission has stayed with Cruse ever since. After completing his military service, he headed out west with his wife, who had found work in Wyoming. Around that time, at the Deadwood Tobacco Company & Cigar Bar in Deadwood, South Dakota, life started to come full circle for Cruse. The cigar shop, located in the historic city of Deadwood where Wild Bill Hickok played his last hand of poker, is a long-time supporter of the nonprofit Operation: Cigars for Warriors. Operation: Cigars for Warriors has built a nationwide network of volunteers that collect premium cigars and ship them to U.S. troops serving in long-term deployments across the globe.
Miss Vaughn Boyd, owner of Deadwood Tobacco Company & Cigar Bar and part of the nationwide network of volunteers, solicited a donation from Cruse on behalf of the charity. Patrons in her store can donate cigars or a cash donation to offset the cost of mailing hundreds of cigars to the troops every month. Cruse donated a few cigars to the cause and, knowing firsthand the mental break in the middle of a war zone that a cigar can offer, readily became a lifetime supporter and fan of the charity.
The connection that veterans are able to easily make with the Operation: Cigars for Warriors mission does not surprise the charity’s Board President and veteran Storm Boen. Boen said that many of his supporters, donors, and volunteers have served themselves or had a close friend or family member that is a veteran or currently on active duty. “What people don’t often realize is that yes, it is a box of cigars, but there are some service men and women who don’t have anyone else sending them anything period while they are deployed overseas; we are their link to home,” said Boen.
As time marched on, Cruse was able to support the charity from a different vantage point: that of a cigar shop owner. In 2013, Cruse opened the doors on his own business, Casper Cigar Company in Wyoming. Setting up the shop was a labor of love and a nod to the deep traditions in the west. His walk-in humidor in the shop was built using 1800s wood reclaimed from a barn that was part of a stagecoach stop. It doesn’t get much more “wild west” than that in 2014. The finishing touch on the business was, of course, a collection bin for patrons to donate cigars and monies to Operation: Cigars for Warriors. Cruse’s shop collects over 100 sticks a month from patrons, which are then sent to a central collection point for sorting and mailed overseas.
Working to solicit monetary and cigar donations from patrons has also been a positive experience for Cruse. “The more I promote what I am trying to do here for the troops, the more I learn just how many veterans there are, “ Cruse shared. “I’ve had people who recognize the Operation: Cigars for Warriors logo and come up to me on the street to tell me that they have a positive memory of having a cigar with their brothers and sisters in arms in the middle of a chaos- and hell-filled war zone,”
The appreciation from strangers on the street and from everyday patrons who help despite having no personal connection to the armed forces has been a positive aspect of being a busy small business owner and proof that while so many things have changed in the last 16 years, Cruse’s experience in Bosnia is still being replicated for service people all over the globe. Beau Blakeney, who is currently serving in the Army, recently told Operation: Cigars for Warriors a story that sounds eerily familiar to Cruse’s recognition that the countries and the soldiers’ names have changed, but a moment of relaxation and personal connection is still needed. “A cigar could be that one moment of peace a soldier gets to enjoy in a country where everyone wants to kill him,” Blakeney said. “It is important to give a soldier that feeling, because who knows, it could be the last time they get to feel that way.”