HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – When Shirley Orlando decided to reach out to U.S. troops in Iraq last year, she recognized that they had a lot of needs.
So she sent them ukuleles.
What started seven months ago as a lark has mushroomed into a nearly full-time hobby for the shop owner and ukulele instructor. Orlando, 57, has shipped more than 400 of the four-string instruments common in Hawaii to dozens of units in Iraq and Afghanistan – and she plans to continue.
“I call the ukulele the happiest little instrument on earth,” Orlando said.
Orlando and Anita Coyoli-Cullen, head of a regional National Guard family support group, founded “Ukes for Troops.”
For $25, they will send a ukulele to a soldier, together with songbooks, a tuner and extra strings.
A decent ukulele costs $75 and up. But Orlando contacted a manufacturer in Hawaii who agreed to provide them for $21 each.
Orlando and Coyoli-Cullen didn’t know which unit should get the first batch. “We picked a Hawaiian National Guard unit because we knew they would appreciate it,” Coyoli-Cullen said.
They did. As soon as the ukes were unwrapped, the e-mails followed.
“Our soldiers are not strangers to this instrument, but rather talented music entertainers who’ve learned how to play the ukulele from their ‘ohana’ (families) and our ‘tutus’ (elders),” wrote Lt. Col. Norman Saito, commander of the 29th Support Battalion of the Hawaii Army National Guard.
In Iraq, the ukuleles have caught the fascination not only of U.S. troops but also of Iraqi people.
“We’ve gotten e-mails from troops that, when they strum the ukulele at night, the Iraqis tell them they like the music,” Coyoli-Cullen said.