SALEM, Ohio – Two men crouch in Army fatigues in front of a Christmas tree. They cradle rifles in their arms and children’s popsicle-stick snowflakes hang on the tree.
This picture is just one of many that has been sent to Ohio tree growers over the last decade. They are a “thank you” of sorts to the people who donate holiday decorations to soldiers.
A reason to send. Operation Evergreen has been shipping live trees to overseas troops since 1995, ever since Ohio Christmas Tree Association board members got to talking, said program coordinator Amy Galehouse.
In recent years, media attention had slowly shifted from the Balkans to Desert Storm. But troops were still stationed in southeastern Europe, yet no one was mentioning them anymore, one member said.
They kept thinking about the forgotten soldiers and decided they’d put their association to work.
That year they sent 29 trees to Kosovo.
Slowly, the number of trees requested and donated has increased. This year, for the first time, trees are being sent to the Middle East. A record 170 trees, from about 50 Ohio farms, will go to Qatar, Kuwait and Afghanistan, Galehouse said.
All the specifics. It’s not as simple as throwing a tree in a box and dropping it off at the post office.
The trees must be packaged in specific-sized boxes; they must be inspected for insects and disease; and depending on the country they’re being shipped to, they may have to be fumigated.
And all of this has to be done early, Galehouse said, typically by early November. Any later and the troops’ families will be mailing Christmas packages and there won’t be room for dozens of 7-foot tree boxes.
This year’s shipment should have arrived in Qatar by Nov. 21 and delivered to the troops by Thanksgiving, Galehouse said.
Preparations, however, started months ago.
Galehouse said Operation Evergreen must apply through U.S. Army Forces Central Command for permission to make a donation. Then it had to be approved and the Army had to ask theater commanders if they could handle tree shipments and, if so, how many trees they wanted.
Trees for Troops. Ohio is the only large-scale effort shipping Christmas trees to overseas troops, Galehouse said.
But this year, for the first time, the National Christmas Tree Association is helping to sponsor Trees for Troops . This nationwide program hopes to collect more than 3,500 live Christmas trees and deliver them to families at five military bases across the country.
Ohio is part of this program, Galehouse said, but it is the overseas arm.
Expenses. In prior years, a program in the Balkans helped cover trees’ shipping costs. However, since this year’s trees were going to the Middle East, there was a problem, Galehouse said. The units were going to have to pay the shipping if they wanted them or Operation Evergreen would have to foot the bill.
A box that size, depending on the country it’s being sent to, can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,100, she said.
After she talked with National Christmas Tree Association, FedEx agreed to cover the cost of shipping all the trees in the Trees for Troops and Operation Evergreen programs.
More than trees. Operation Evergreen couldn’t send just bare trees, though, Galehouse said.
So early on, she began recruiting classrooms, civic groups, churches and various clubs to make ornaments for the trees.
Those efforts have snowballed and now paper chain garland, homemade ornaments, stockings and Christmas cards are all sent along with the trees. High school students burn CDs with Christmas songs, one man sends several dozen hand-painted ornaments each year, and elementary students write letters, punch holes in the corners and make them into ornaments, Galehouse said.
Children aren’t the only one sending letters, though.
If people include their e-mail addresses, the soldiers usually write and say how much the holiday decorations meant to them, she said.
“Many of us have children about your age that we really miss, and that are going to be opening their presents without either Dad or Mom because they are far away,” one lieutenant wrote to an Ohio classroom last year. “Thanks to you, though, we are going to feel a little less lonely.”
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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* Operation Evergreen
* Trees for Troops
Click on “Real Trees for Troops”