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WP: Trees for all the troops
Md. man's medic daughter inspires his holiday mission
By Amit R. Paley


WASHINGTON - It's not easy to ship a Christmas tree to Iraq.

Jim Ward knows. In an elaborate and admittedly eccentric campaign dubbed Operation Christmas Tree, he managed to get 75 live conifers to homesick troops in Iraq and Afghanistan this winter. Now his effort is snowballing into a massive national drive to ensure that each of the 150,000 U.S. troops in the two war zones receives a tree next holiday season.

"These soldiers are risking their lives over there and can't even spend Christmas with their families," said Ward, 33, a truck driver from Westminster, Md., who delivers trees for a nursery. "Don't they at least deserve a Christmas tree to remind them of home while they're stuck there?"

Ward's Christmas tree effort started with one soldier: his daughter, Army Spec. Luisa Gonzalez, a 22-year-old medic who was deployed two months ago to a base north of Baghdad. When he thought of her alone on Christmas in battle-scarred Iraq, he decided that the best way to give her some holiday cheer was to finagle a Christmas tree there.

But how do you get a 5-foot-tall, 70-pound tree into a war zone?

Ward despaired. The U.S. Postal Service couldn't guarantee its safe delivery, and no one could think of another way to get a tree that big to the Middle East.

"Then one day I'm eating dinner, and it just dawned on me, and I was like, 'Whoa!' " he recalled. " 'The answer is Charlie Browns!' "

Charlie Browns, 2-foot-high trees named after the classic Christmas cartoon special in which one was featured, were small enough to be easily shipped inside a box. And at just $7.98 each, the trees were inexpensive enough that Ward could send them to dozens of other Americans fighting overseas.
He ended up shipping 35 trees to his daughter's company and the rest to Marines from Fort Detrick in Frederick and his brother-in-law's unit in Afghanistan. "It just kept bothering me that my daughter was going to get one and other people there weren't," Ward said.

'Smells like Christmas'
The live potted conifers arrived in a box emblazoned with the logo Operation Christmas Tree, along with battery-operated lights -- for the soldier without access to electricity -- and sparkly ornaments.


"Everyone was just in shock. Here we are in the middle of Iraq, and suddenly it smells like Christmas," recalled Gonzalez, who joined the Army to pay for school and wants to be a doctor. "And nobody could believe that the trees were actually alive. Eventually I had to say, 'Please take them out of the box and water them or they'll die!' "

A half-dozen letters of thanks have arrived at the Ward home. "Your care for my soldiers is greatly appreciated," wrote Capt. Bryan Hunsaker, Gonzalez's company commander. "Your kindness provided a piece of home to our young men and women who could not be with their families this year because of their commitment to fight the war on terrorism."

Ward has set up a Web site, http://www.operationchristmastree.com (external - login to view), to raise money to send trees to every member of the military in Iraq and Afghanistan next year. He spent almost $600 this winter (which was matched by the District-based Armed Forces Foundation), but the expanded operation will cost tens of thousands more.

But Gonzalez is convinced fate is smiling on the drive: Gonzalez was randomly assigned a two-week leave that just happens to include Dec. 25.

Maybe it's karma. Or perhaps a Christmas miracle.

"Whatever it is," Ward said, "having my daughter home is the best Christmas present I could ask for."

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