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thedrifter
12-24-06, 07:37 AM
Tokens From the Home Front
It's Christmas Eve, and people in the Washington area are abustle with their tinsel and toys, sugarplums and fruitcake, prayers and candlelit services. Far away are the Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Far away, but not far from thought. Many people extended their hearts across the ocean this holiday season.

Sunday, December 24, 2006; C01

When students at Hollywood Elementary School in St. Mary's County made holiday cards for Marines in Iraq last month, they didn't expect any response from 6,000 miles away, much less the one they got.

A Marine, a St. Mary's native, called their principal. He was returning to the United States in December, he said, and he wanted to come thank the children in person.

Last week, the youngsters were eyeball to eyeball with Sgt. Kevin Silver, listening to him tell how much their drawings of snowmen and messages of "We love you!" had meant to the 2,000 Marines in his unit.

Silver, who just came off a six-month tour in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait, brought his own children -- ages 10, 7 and 4 -- from their North Carolina home. He stood in his dress blues and tried to explain a far-off war to some of the country's youngest citizens.

"Do you shoot people and bomb them and stuff?" one wide-eyed boy asked.

"My job is actually to handle the money," Silver responded carefully, "but sometimes we do have to shoot people to protect ourselves and all the people back at home."

Dozens of children rushed up to Silver after he finished speaking, fingering the shiny gold buttons on his uniform and marveling at his perfectly polished patent leather shoes. Many of them hugged him and said they, too, have a family member in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"You guys help us get through the times that are tough," Silver said.

-- Megan Greenwell

Until He Can Serve, Teen Sends a Lifesaving Tool


Zachary Peterson was in line at Target to buy the store's supply of Silly String. All of it. Throwing a party, the cashier must've figured, sizing up the 14-year-old.

"I'm just helping the soldiers," he recalled telling the cashier.

With $1.99 cans of Silly String?

"Some people think it's crazy," said the high school freshman from White Plains, who goes by "Zeke."

The plastic goo that shoots in strands out of pressurized cans can save lives on the battleground. As soldiers go building to building, they spray Silly String to detect booby traps. If the bright strands hang in the air, they've found a tripwire.

The Charles County teenager has amassed 300 cans in two weeks and hopes to have 6,000 by mid-January, when he will send them to Iraq.

"Sending them cookies won't save their lives -- it will probably make them fat," he joked. "But this will save their lives."

Zeke doesn't plan to stop collecting after the holidays. "I want to do it until it needs to be done, whenever the war stops and the troops come home," he said.

He dreams of being a Marine. He is active in his school's ROTC and is a member of the color guard. When he graduates, he plans to enlist. He wants to fight on the front lines and has been practicing his aim by shooting Silly String.

His mother, Lisa, joked that he has fought "a couple of battles in the front yard."

"I think Zachary has the spirit and the heart to be a warrior," she said.

-- Philip Rucker

To help Zeke, you can drop off cans of Silly String at Safeway in Waldorf's Smallwood Village or the United Way office in La Plata. Or mail donations to P.O. Box 1723, White Plains, Md. 20695, and Zeke will buy the cans for you.

A Child's Holiday Wish, Granted in Twinkling Lights


It's nearly 5 p.m., the winter light is wan and orange against the Catoctin mountains across from Staff Sgt. Chris Alley's home in Emmitsburg. It's nearly time to see whether his 5-year-old, Isabella, will get her Christmas wish. She wants the lights on their old Victorian to be so bright you could see them from outer space.

Perhaps she got the idea from the Danny DeVito Christmas movie "Deck the Halls." Or perhaps, when you're 5 and you haven't seen your father since May, you just want to be noticed. Whatever the reason, her father wanted to give it to her, but he was miles away in Baghdad's Green Zone.

Then he saw an e-mail about a contest for military personnel: Write 500 words about why your family's home should be decorated and a decorating company will give your house the same glittering Christmas makeover others pay $1,000 for.

Alley thought of his wife, Melinda, home alone with their three kids, Victoria, 14, Quinn, 4, and Isabella. This was Victoria's first year in high school. She'd made the field hockey team, and he wasn't there to coach her. Isabella was starting kindergarten. Quinn was old enough to notice that his father was gone.

Melinda was the one who got the kids off to school, who drove them to dance lessons and T-ball. She was the one who kept the family going until he could be a part of it again. "My wife is my hero," he wrote.

That was the line that struck Roy Good, who owns the Christmas Decor franchise in Frederick County. So on Dec. 15, Good and his crew went to the house and for three hours hung garland with red ribbons. They strung big white lights on the roof and wrapped tiny white lights around every branch of a small tree. "It's so very little for what they're giving up," Good said.

When Alley was returning home Dec. 17 for two weeks, all he could think of on the plane was how he wanted this Christmas to be special for his kids, something they'd remember.

It's finally dark outside. Alley flips the switches. The porch is awash in a green and orange and blue glow. The little tree is so bright that the solar-powered walkway lights go out. And Isabella stands on the porch with her eyes wide.

-- Brigid Schulte

In Tough Times, Generosity Deepens


Talk of roadside bombs dulled the festive edge.

"How do people make these things up, the bombs? Who would have the time . . . ? What is the purpose of it?"

Leianah Haimanchandra was assembling packages and asking questions. She's 17, a senior at Mount Vernon High School, the sister of two Navy sailors. In the two hours before her shift as a CVS cashier, she was filling boxes for U.S. troops in Iraq who don't otherwise get mail, a campaign by a La Plata group called Any Soldier.

Haimanchandra's soldier is getting hand sanitizer, toothpaste, lip balm and "A Soldier's Promise: The Heroic True Story of an American Soldier and an Iraqi Boy." He also will receive a 2002 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The cover model tag line: "Yamila Sizzles in Mexico."

"Nobody's really in the Christmas spirit," Haimanchandra said. Her sisters are home after a deployment, but the war has separated families and left many mourning.

Middle-schoolers struggled with the accompanying cards.

Happy holidays! I hope you are having fun! Love, Randi

Have an awsome holiday and make sure to be happy and safe!

You are the reason why we are all safe from taroist. Your hard work has really paid off hope you can come home soon to see the change you made

Brian Horn, an Army sergeant from La Plata, and his father came up with the idea for Any Soldier in 2003.

"You'd be surprised how many people join the Army because they don't have family," said Amy Anderson, an organizer.

The goods came from customers at Moe's, a burrito shop in Fairfax County where the assembling is being done. Luis Ordonez and his moving crew were hauling the 200 boxes to be mailed. His last job was cleaning the linens at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Haimanchandra is in the Junior ROTC and plans to join the Navy or Marines after college.

"Having the war happen made me feel, even more, I want to do it, just to help out."

-- Michael Laris

For information on Any Soldier, go towww.anysoldier.com.

Woman Turns to Neighbors, The Web to Send Gifts Afar


When Sharon Rainey dropped by the Great Falls post office in November 2004, she meant to buy stamps, not launch a mission.

But she ran into a neighbor loaded down with boxes to mail to her son in Afghanistan.

"I thought: It would be nice if he could get a care package from his community as well, as a way of saying thank you for his sacrifices," Rainey said.

And why stop with just one service member? Never one to think in nanobytes, Rainey -- doyenne of a Northern Virginia Internet mailing list and Web site, Neighbors International -- decided to enlist her 1,700 subscribers.

Which is why this holiday season, hundreds of service members in Afghanistan and Iraq are receiving care packages filled with such desert-hardy treats as beef jerky, protein bars and instant coffee.

It's all done on Internet -- from e-mail solicitations seeking donated items, to cash she gets via a Web site to help cover her $1,000 monthly postage tab, to thank-you e-mails from service personnel.

Since that day in 2004, through a nonprofit organization she set up, Neighbors International Foundation, Rainey and her volunteers have sent 3,900 packages and 13,000 letters of support. Snacks, letters and gifts go into each package -- Girl Scout cookies are a big hit -- along with Beanie Babies, soccer balls and school supplies for the troops to distribute to children they encounter.

-- Jacqueline L. Salmon

For more information on Neighbors International's effort, go towww.nifoundation.org.

For Military Dogs, Christmas Comes With a Big, Juicy Bone


The heavy-duty boxes arrive at posts across the Middle East covered in cheery blue paw prints.

The military men and women know immediately that the Christmas presents inside are mostly not for them, but for their dogs.

Several hundred military dogs serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, manning (or perhaps dogging) checkpoints and sniffing for bombs, according to military publications. Like their human counterparts, they get killed and wounded.

But because the dogs are considered equipment, the military doesn't provide rope toys, dog beds or big bones to make their lives more enjoyable, said Amy Nichols, founder of Dogtopia Daycare & Spa. That's where her group steps in.

For the second year, volunteers from the company, which used to be called Happy Tails and has locations in Bethesda and Tysons Corner, packaged up hundreds of pounds of treats and toys and mailed them overseas.

"Making the dogs happy makes the troops happy," she said.

The effort has been so popular that the company has started its own charitable wing -- K-9 Support -- to collect donations.

"We'll continue to support military dogs until they all come home," Nichols said.

-- Rosalind S. Helderman

To help K-9 Support, write to 4920 Wyaconda Rd., North Bethesda, Md. 20852 or e-mailinfo@dogfranchise.comfor more information.

'I Just Don't Want Them To Think They're Forgotten'


Six people sit around a table in a bare basement room at First Baptist Church of Alexandria. They stuff maroon-edged cards, 18,500 in all, into oversize cream-colored envelopes addressed "To Our Hero." They are thank-you notes for soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen around the world.

Wanda Edwards, a retired State Department employee and a deacon at the church, thinks of her brother. "How uplifted my brother would have been to have received something like this when he was in Vietnam."

Pat Brenton thinks of Sept. 11, 2001. "I just don't want them to think they're forgotten," she said.

It's not much, stuffing these envelopes, says Warren Abraham, a retired Air Force officer, but it's something he can do. "A lot of people didn't choose to be there or may not agree with being there," he said. "I want them to know that the people at home understand they're doing their duty. And we appreciate it."

Lisa Spencer made it all happen. Her husband, an officer in the Navy medical corps, was deployed to Iraq in July. Then she was laid off. She needed something to occupy her mind. Another Navy wife suggested that she open a gift shop at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and use the proceeds to help wounded service people.

Enter Margaret Middleton, who was selling her Houston gift-card business. An acquaintance told her to call Spencer, and before long, she was shipping 3,000 pounds of donated merchandise for the gift shop. She also had 18,500 blank cards, so she printed Christmas thank-you notes and asked Spencer to send them to the troops.

UPS shipped the thank-you notes to Spencer free. Then Spencer called First Baptist and asked for help stuffing them. "How many can I bring?" she asked Brenton, who works for the pastor.

"All of them," Brenton answered. "Bring them all."

-- Brigid Schulte

A Send-Off From Those Who've Been There Before


John Reiman cut to the chase Wednesday night when he greeted Sgt. Edward Pillans, a soldier dressed in Army fatigues and ready to board a flight that would take him from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Germany, then Iraq.

"We know where you're going, we know what you're going through," said the 72-year-old Navy veteran wearing a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap. "It ain't the History Channel and all that. . . . It's a different type of a conflict."

For three years, Reiman, Dominic "Chick" Deludos and other Maryland VFW members have been seeing the troops off at BWI several times a week.

"It's quite nice to see them here," said Pillans, of the 10th Mountain Division. "It keeps spirits up."

Reiman and Deludos, an 80-year-old retired Marine, have been coming out so long they can recognize -- or have been recognized by -- troops who've been shipped off to Iraq for multiple tours.

"When you see these young people leaving for the third or fourth time, it's rough, especially for the holidays," Deludos said. "If you did it yourself, you know what they're going through."

-- Steve Vogel

Ellie