SALEM, Ohio – Thanksgiving is still a week away, and some people are already worried about Christmas trees.
Some northeastern Ohio growers have even cut a tree or two here and there in preparation for the season.
But they’re not being selfish, trying to make the holidays a big deal for themselves or get a head start on seasonal business – they’re helping add a touch of holiday joy to the lives of military soldiers stationed overseas.
Christmas tree growers from across the state donated nearly 100 trees this year to “Operation Evergreen – Ohio Christmas Trees Overseas.”
The drive, organized by members of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association and regional grower groups, has been sending holiday cheer to peacekeeping troops in eastern Europe for the past five years.
Nearly a fourth of the trees collected this year statewide came from northeastern Ohio growers.
Branching out. Tree donations have grown since the program’s inception; in 1996, only 25 trees were donated. Since then, hundreds of trees have reminded overseas troops of the holiday season.
“I feel it’s important to send some hometown spirit to the service people. The project also is a good way to thank them all for a job well done,” said Mary Jan Perdulla, owner of Pioneer Trails Tree Farm near Poland, Ohio. The farm was a regional delivery and collection site for the project Nov. 12.
The Perdulla family donated a fir and a white pine to the project this year.
Schoolchildren and veterans from all corners of the state turned out for the tree cuttings and collections that day as well. The students also delivered their own gifts for the service people – handmade ornaments and holiday decorations to accompany the trees.
Several elementary schools from Mahoning and Trumbull counties donated dozens of ornaments and paper chains.
Each tree shipped to Europe is accompanied by a kit, which includes a tree stand and a box of ornaments and decorations. Some trees are also accompanied by handwritten letters from students.
“Many of the schools put in a card and ask for a response, and a lot of the time they end up getting e-mails and photos from the troops,” said Dale Arnold, executive director of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association.
“The kids are amazed, especially when they get a photo of the troops with the tree and ornaments they made,” he said. “The smiles on the faces of the military service people are pretty big, too.”
The smiles on the faces of veterans and active servicemen and women who were on hand to help load trees were also big during the collection at Pioneer Trails.
“I didn’t get a tree when I was in Vietnam, so I’m here today to show that I’m thinking of those people who are over there. This really is the hardest time to be away from your family,” said Bill Miller, commander of American Legion Post 15 in Poland.
No easy project. From the Mahoning County farm, and from other farms throughout the state, the donations started their international journey.
What may seem like an easy project has protocol that’s almost unimaginable, according to Arnold.
The ongoing project ‘starts’ in July of each year, when the Ohio group sends a message to the United States Army with a request to initiate the program. It’s months before they know the fate of the project.
The Defense Logistics Agency of Fort Belvoir, Va., notified Arnold with this year’s go-ahead just recently.
“The security this goes through would blow your mind. We have to ensure the military exactly when the trees will be arriving, what trucks will be delivering them, and give them the truck license plate numbers,” Arnold said.
With heightened security in recent months, drivers who deliver the goods will also have secret codes necessary to get on to military bases, he said.
After organizers got the green flag from the Army, calls went out to remind growers of the opportunity to participate. Organizers try to collect trees of every Ohio-grown variety and only one or two trees from as many growers as possible, which allows more participation, according to Perdulla.
After trees were collected at the six regional collection points Nov. 12, a convoy of growers and military members, including soldiers from the 423rd Quartermaster Battalion (Water) Kunkel Army Reserve Center near Warren, Ohio, converged on the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s headquarters in Reynoldsburg, armed with the evergreens. Most of the trees were hauled to central Ohio in military Hummers and Army utility trucks.
ODA Division of Plant Industry staff members inspected the trees for pests and disease, and fumigated all trees to prepare them for exportation. The trees were then baled and boxed and put into the kits to be delivered to Bosnia and Kosovo.
“Operation Evergreen has been sending trees to military personnel stationed in Bosnia for the past five years,” said Carl Young, association president. No trees will be delivered to other Middle Eastern countries this year, including Afghanistan.
However, project organizers will keep an eye on the events that unfold in the region, and will work closely to plan for next year, according to Arnold.
On the road. Trans Service Logistics Company of Coshocton, Ohio, hauled the kits to the U.S. Army Defense Distribution Depot Susquehanna in Mechanicsburg, Pa., Nov. 14. After another military inspection, the kits were sealed and loaded onto transport planes bound for Germany.
By Dec. 15, the trees will be distributed, decorated and displayed in military detachments on the other side of the world.
The project targets smaller units of troops in rural areas, Arnold said, because those troops are often more isolated from the rest of the world.
Trees that did not fit into the limited space earmarked on military transport vehicles for Middle Eastern delivery were donated to the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations around Columbus.
Far-reaching. The project serves on many levels, according to Lyle Bailey, president of the regional grower group. He also owns Bailey’s Christmas Tree Farm in Lordstown, Ohio, a major organizer and contributor to the project.
“It’s the least we can do to show our appreciation for the people who are working to protect us,” he said.
Elite group. Ohio is the only state with clearance to ship trees and related Christmas items to military personnel overseas, according to Arnold. Shortly after the project was started, OCTA officials approached other states’ groups to get involved with the idea, but no other state pursued the venture, Arnold said.
“As we see more and more forces deployed around the world, especially since the events in September, it is showing us the need still exists for the trees and the project,” Arnold said.
“Christmas really is a home-oriented holiday, and that’s what we’re trying to do – remind the soldiers that they may not be at home with their families, but their homes and homeland still supports them,” Bailey said.
(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)