By JAMES B. HALE
WESTMINSTER (Nov. 27, 2009) - Each of the past three years, James Ward has sent 5,000 miniature Christmas trees to soldiers overseas, but this year he might have to leave thousands empty-handed.
Ward said he has had trouble finding $25 donations for the two-foot tall trees that come complete with lights, ornaments and, most importantly, American soil.
The foundation, Operation Christmas Tree, started after Ward sent a few dozen trees to his stepdaughter's troop in Iraq in 2006. When he found out how much the troops loved the trees, he decided to expand the operation to troops in countries around the world.
"Some people, they've just had their first kid, their first anniversaries ... they're trying to figure out how they're going to do this for Christmas as far as a family being apart," Ward said. "The tree just, it seems to put everybody in the right place."
But this year, the foundation has seen a major decrease in donations, said Ward. By the beginning of the month, they only had enough money to send out about 200 trees. He blamed the lack of money on a bad economy.
The project costs a total of about $125,000 each year, with the price of the trees, ornaments, lights, pots and shipping materials, Ward said. While corporate sponsors sometimes help out (this year Home Depot offered to lend a hand), a lot of the money comes from individual donations.
Ward and his stepdaughter, Luisa Gonzalez, who now runs the operation, said sending the trees is worth the effort. Gonzalez said it is a way for her to stay connected to the troops.
"Now that I'm out, it's my way of continuing to support the men and women that I served with, people that I look at as family," she said.
Capt. Daniel Collins said his entire troop from the Maryland National Guard received trees in Iraq in 2007. Receiving the trees was a huge morale booster, which helped him as a leader, he said.
"When you're walking around and the mud is like peanut butter, and you walk into your building or into your quarters ... when you look over and see a green Christmas tree, it makes it feel a little less like you're in a war zone and a little more normal," said Collins.
Collins knew firsthand what it was like to leave a family home for the holidays. He spent Christmas Eve sitting alone in bed, away from his wife and two young children, he said.
Ward said he understands that holidays can be tough, and if a tree can brighten the day of just one soldier, it's worth it.
"If somebody's head is in the right place because of a two-foot Christmas tree, they're less likely to be thinking about things that get their mind off their job that might get them killed," Ward said.
Although Ward opposes the war, he thinks supporting the troops is important, even after the Iraq war. He said he'll try to keep sending the trees as long as there are soldiers overseas and as long as people keep giving money.
"I had (President Bush) ask me, he said 'When are you going to stop sending these?'" Ward said. "I said 'When you stop giving me business.' And he just smiled at me. He didn't know what to say."
Operation Christmas Tree accepts donations online at: http://www.operationchristmastree.com/ .
Capital News Service contributed to this report.