While Capital Region residents gather for holiday cheer near the fireplace, hundreds of New Yorkers will be thousands of miles away, many in a war zone devoid of the colorful sights and sounds of their hometown holidays.
The fact that soldiers on tour will miss the holiday season near friends and family is one never forgotten by the many chapters of the Blue Star Mothers, an organization of soldiers' moms that got its start in 1942 before being chartered by Congress in 1960.
By the end of September, the Department of Defense listed a total of 3,672 service members from New York as currently deployed (these numbers are based on the “home of record” listed by the soldiers).
They included 1,275 from the Army and 31 from the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. The remaining 2,366 were deployed from reserve forces, including 1,642 from the Army National Guard, 459 from the Army Reserve, 143 from the Air National Guard, 63 from the Air Force Reserve, 9 from the Naval Reserve and two from the Coast Guard Reserve.
Locally, the Capital Region NY2 Blue Star Mothers chapter conducts periodic gift drives, but the group collects items throughout the year to help boost the morale of those far away from home. The group is collecting donations of snack items and greeting cards this holiday season to ensure soldiers don't think they've been forgotten.
"I think, day in and day out, you don't hear much about the troops anymore," said Janet Moran, the local chapter's president, whose son, Michael, has been in the Army for the past 17 years.
Moran recalls disturbing comments she heard at a recent donation drive at a Sam's Club store.
"Someone made the comment they didn't know we still had troops in Afghanistan. There is some perception out there, among some of the public, that the war is done because we pulled out of Iraq. We just lost four [soldiers] in a week in Afghanistan," Moran said.
Sharing the spirit
Sgt. Kara Sharkey, 23, remembers the cold and rainy Thanksgiving and Christmas season she spent after being dispatched to Basrah, Iraq, from July 2009 through June 2010. Serving as a military police officer for the New York Army National Guard, she deployed with the 206th Military Police Company out of Latham and got to Iraq just 15 weeks after giving birth.
Sharkey spent her time based in a small outpost, and holiday decorations and celebrations were a big boost for morale, she said. Decorating the Christmas trees they were sent was something everybody liked to do, she said.
"Decorating a Christmas tree makes Christmas, no matter where you are. You don't always need the snow," Sharkey said.
That's why a gift of a tree ornament was greatly appreciated — as well as a can of fake snow soldiers frosted their trees with. Brownies and homemade cookies were Sharkey's favorites, but one thing that brought some of them closer to home was a package of pine needles.
With a plentiful supply of candy, Sharkey said even the local kids got a taste of the holidays.
"We'd throw candy to kids if they wanted it. You don't always want to look like the bad guy. We'd pass it out to kids, and they always enjoyed it," said Sharkey, who now works as a member of the New York Army National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters Detachment.
‘Taste of home’
Donation drives often take place during the holidays, though Moran of the Blue Star Mothers said she and others send out packages on a regular basis. Mothers of soldiers, she said, take care of sending out a "little taste of home," like a favorite cookie.
"When we send our own individual packages, that's what moms tend to do. When we do mass mailing, we like to send things that are prepackaged," Moran said.
The Capital Region chapter held a drive earlier in November, and Moran said gifts from an additional donation drive this month could get to soldiers in time for Christmas. Small snacks are best, she said, because the soldiers are often on the move and burn plenty of calories. Cookies and crackers, energy bars and trail mix, toaster pastries, powdered drink mixes, hard candy and beef jerky are among suggested gift items.
The Blue Star Mothers also pack lip balm, sanitary wipes, toothpaste and toothbrushes, tissues, shampoo, conditioner and other toiletries in gift boxes. The group also collects monetary donations — it costs $11.35 to send a package.
Greeting cards are also welcomed, but they mail best inside a gift box, she said. She said one of her friends sent a gift box to Afghanistan and waited a week before sending a greeting card in an individual envelope. The gift box made it within two weeks, but it was a month before the card arrived, she said.
The Capital Region chapter plans to send more packages to soldiers overseas this holiday season. Moran said soldiers could receive gifts in time for Christmas if they're sent by early December.
People interested in helping to spread holiday cheer to deployed soldiers can find a list of suggested items on the Blue Star Mothers website at capitalregion2bsm.org.
Gifts and donations for postage can be dropped off at the main office of The Daily Gazette at 2345 Maxon Road Extension, off Freeman's Bridge Road. Donations by mail can be sent to The Daily Gazette, Blue Star Mothers drive, P.O. Box 1090, Schenectady, NY 12301-1090.