‘Operation Christmas’ Cheers Military Families

By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service

SAN ANTONIO, Dec. 14, 2006 – Christmas came a few weeks early this year for military families throughout San Antonio.

Nearly 300 servicemembers and their families, many dressed in their holiday best, flocked to the Texas National Guard Armory early yesterday for “Operation Christmas,” a campaign aimed at brightening the holidays for military families.

The San Antonio event was the fifth in a series of six celebrations that have taken place in military communities throughout the nation, thanks to a joint effort between America Supports You partner Operation Homefront and Wal-Mart. America Supports You is a Defense Department program that highlights and facilitates public support for U.S. servicemembers and their families.

“Operation Christmas is a way to say thank you to military members for their service and thank you to the family members who are sacrificing,” said Amy Palmer of Operation Homefront.

The early morning festivities, held in a colorfully decked-out tent, included holiday arts and crafts, a visit with Santa Claus, food, music, and satellite and Web links with deployed loved ones. San Antonio Spurs basketball legend George “Iceman” Gervin was on hand to sign basketballs and autograph pictures for new and old fans alike.

“We realize many military families here are sacrificing, as well as the military overseas,” said the Basketball Hall of Famer. “We wanted to show how much we appreciate them and will do whatever we can to support them.”

No one walked away empty-handed. Each child received a sizeable toy from Santa, and parents and older siblings were treated to Wal-Mart gift cards so they could buy toys of their own. While Santa will most likely garner the glory, the credit for the early Christmas gifts was due to Wal-Mart, which donated $500,000 to Operation Homefront for the Operation Christmas events.

“This is wonderful,” said Wendy Hansen, who traveled about 130 miles from Fort Hood, Texas, with her 8-year-old son, Dawson, to attend the event. Her husband deployed to Iraq in October. “It means a lot to me, makes me realize that people care.”

Along with military families, about 45 wounded warriors recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center here took part in the festivities. While too old for Santa’s lap, the servicemembers still scored an early Christmas present.

“This is a great thing to do for military families,” said wounded warrior Army Staff Sgt. David Barnette, who was waiting in line to greet Santa with his wife, Ruby, and 5-year-old daughter, Jordan.

“Doing something like this is a blessing,” Ruby said.

“It’s wonderful that people care so much for soldiers,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Colvin. “To be out there giving our lives, and have something like this to come back to, it’s heartwarming.”

A few of the recovering soldiers appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program, which sent a crew to broadcast live from the Operation Christmas site. The morning show has covered two of the events, and plans to cover the final one in Savannah, Ga., next week.

“You can never show enough support of troops,” said Morgan Zalkin, GMA producer. “We wanted to let them know that we weren’t just thinking of the troops in the field, but also their families back home.”

“I don’t know how you can’t support the troops,” said GMA correspondent Mike Barz, an Army “brat” whose grandfather fought in three wars. “Regardless of how you feel about the war, you should support the servicemembers.”

Brooke Army Medical Center Commander Brig. Gen. James Gilman thanked everyone for their efforts in support of military members and their family and emphasized the importance of America’s continued support.

“Organizations like Operation Homefront and Operation Comfort and businesses that help do this type of an event are indicators that Americans understand how hard it is to be a warrior or the family of one,” he said. “Our wounded warriors work really hard. I’m not sure people understand how hard it is to get up, endure pain and fatigue, and stay motivated.

“Support like this keeps them going, keeps them carrying on.”

Chris Hansen, a wounded warrior injured a year ago by two roadside bombs in Iraq, said the support was much appreciated, particularly as he transitions to civilian life.

“I didn’t expect this; it’s a surprise,” said the father of five children, all under age 8. “I wasn’t able to afford much for my kids this year, so this means a lot.”

(Elaine Wilson is assigned to the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)