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The Tentacle


December 7, 2007

Operation Christmas Tree

Kevin E. Dayhoff

How do you ship 5,000 two-foot live Christmas trees to a war zone? Early last Saturday morning over 300 volunteers figured it out as they braved the wind and cold and turned out for “Operation Christmas Tree” at the Carroll County Agriculture Center.

The main operation was centered in a 40-by-60 foot tent. However, the packing activity quickly escaped the confines of the tent as assembled boxes burst through the back of the tent, were tossed to a staging area, stacked, and then filled with Christmas trees.

As quickly as the boxed trees entered one end of the tent, they sped down an assembly line staffed by Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, “Young Marines,” and other volunteers who just wanted to help. The boxed live Christmas tree then erupted out the other end after being stuffed with decorations, lights, batteries, a Christmas card, and a phone card – and lots of heartfelt smiles and holiday wishes.

Just as a forklift whizzed behind us, Jim Ward explained that this all began last year when his family decided to send his daughter, Specialist Luisa Gonzalez, an Army medic deployed in Iraq, a decorated live, five-foot Christmas tree.

“The Post Office couldn’t figure that out,” he explained. Meanwhile, his daughter’s reaction was “how about the rest of my troops?”

So, last year Mr. Ward, his wife Betty and daughters Elizabeth and Marie sent 75 live Christmas trees to her unit, her uncle’s unit in another part of the Middle East and two Marine units deployed out of Fort Detrick. “Let’s say they were smaller than five foot – but we got them there,” added Mr. Ward.

This year even 2-1/2 year-old Marie got into the act, stacking labels off the printer for “Weezy,” as she calls her older sister – and “Weezy’s trees.”

Just then Mr. Ward looked up to answer a question from the national office of Fox News Channel. Fox will be airing the story nationwide on Christmas. As soon as he finished with Fox News, Mark Simkin with the Australian Broadcast Network popped into the tent with a videographer.

Mr. Simkin said that Australia has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and this is a “wonderful Christmas story, mate.” He described how the Australian news will broadcast the story “all across Australia and eastern Asia.”

Mr. Ward then detailed that he will “ship a tree to Australian troops, British (troops) whatever... As long as they are fighting on our side...” A point of which Mr. Simkin nodded in agreement – “That’s why we’re here.”

At the suggestion of 6th District Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, Operation Christmas Tree has teamed up with the Armed Forces Foundation, a registered non-profit in Washington, started in 2001, to collect donations for this project.

The foundation’s honorary board of directors includes over 150 members of Congress and 96.5 percent of all “outside donations (go) directly to military families…,” according to Lindsey Brothers.

Ms. Brothers, who works with the foundation, surveyed the scene as she looked for a pack of papers and called the frenzied activity “organized pandemonium.” She said that community support has been “simply overwhelming. I had no idea there would be this much support.”

That theme was echoed by Mr. Ward as he talked on his Bluetooth earpiece, dug in his pocket for some keys and handed a piece of paper to a volunteer. “It’s heartwarming and the troops will appreciate it,” added Mr. Ward. “I also want to be sure to credit Congressman Bartlett and his Westminster office assistant Deborah Burrell for also going out of their way to help.”

Patricia Driscoll, president of the foundation, said that the Armed Forces Foundation has a broad range of programs for military families “and this is one of our favorites.” Other services include helping pay for hotel rooms for families of wounded troops in the hospital.

Army Specialist Gonzalez said that she was given a three-day pass to volunteer with this year’s Operation Christmas Tree. As she shivered in the cold, she acknowledged that it was an abrupt change to be here.

Two days before, Specialist Gonzales, trained in combat medicine and a certified emergency medical technician, was working in a “level 2” medical facility that “operates between (the combat) line and the combat support hospital.”

Congressman Bartlett was on the assembly line and looked up long enough to say what a great thing this was for the troops – and morale... “It’s our way of saying thanks and Merry Christmas.”

Specialist Gonzalez agreed with Congressman Bartlett that the Christmas Trees will be a big boost for morale. “I’m just happy to be here. It will make a big difference in Iraq, where every day is Monday. The mission goes on no matter what the day is… Iraq knows no holidays.”

A point of which Capt. Opher Heymann nodded in knowing approval as he moved a number of boxes. Captain Heymann, who did one tour in 2004 – 2005, mostly in Tikrit, Iraq, said that the Christmas trees will be “incredibly important to the troops… Gives ‘em a taste of home.”

The next day – late in the evening, Mr. Ward said that they got all of them packed, although he was still at it, handwriting some last minute labels. “We were there until 6:30 last night and we got it done.”

For more information on “Operation Christmas Tree,” the address is: Operation Christmas Tree, P.O. Box 391, Westminster, MD 21158, or go to www.operationchristmastree.com on the web. The web site for the Armed Forces Foundation is www.armedforcesfoundation.org.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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