Like the tiny acorn that grows into a mighty oak, a small act of kindness can get big and strong and branch out into a community.
Ten days ago, 1,000 people walked together in Glens Falls. It was a nasty morning, as cold rain dribbled out of a dark sky. Some walkers carried heavy packs as they trudged the 3.5-mile route.
For 11 years, the Christmas Eve Road March has honored American soldiers who spend the holiday far away, sending them the message that they are never forgotten.
“We don’t want them to think that we’re just over here enjoying ourselves. We still remember them,” says Sgt. First Class Arthur Coon, the Glens Falls resident who leads the march.
“I always call it shared suffering,” says Coon. “If they’re over there, we’re taking a little bit of our time on Christmas Eve when we could be home enjoying it with our families.”
Started in 2003
Back in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq and launched combat operations, Coon was working as recruiter at the National Guard.
He decided to walk around town with his military backpack on Christmas Eve and asked his wife to take pictures that could be emailed to hometown soldiers.
“It ended up being 20 of us. Some of the parents of the soldiers came along with me,” Coon says.
The march is rarely advertised. People hear about it through word of mouth or Facebook.
“It’s such a feel-good thing,’’ says Coon. “It was 1,400 last year.”
Marchers are young and old, male and female, military and civilian. Soldiers in fatigues, families of soldiers and veterans all share their stories as they walk along.
Coon, who retired from the military in 2010 after 32 years with the Army and National Guard, has rejected offers from organizations that want to raise money with the march.
“No, that would ruin the purity of it,” he says. “We want it to be a grassroots thing. This is free.”
Wearing a pack is personal choice, too.
“The soldiers do it because that’s what they do. When the civilians do it, it’s as a symbolic gesture.”
Some civilians carry a camping backpack, parents of a soldier may carry their son or daughter’s pack.
“We had one woman whose husband committed suicide this year. He had retired from the guard. She was carrying his pack in his memory,” Coon says.
After the march, photos and videos are posted on Facebook and emailed to the faraway soldiers.
“Parents and family members will share all the stories with them,” Coon says.
But Christmas is over. What can the average person do to help a soldier or veteran any time of the year?
“We always tell people to think of the small circle around you, be it family or neighbors or whatever, and look to those veterans and think of something to do to help them,” Coon says.
“Sometimes it’s obvious, like the old World War II veteran next door who needs his lawn mowed. Maybe a veteran needs a hot meal with a family. If people look around them, they’ll find somebody to help. Anybody can write a check to any charity you want, but the closer-to-home stuff means more.”
Soldiers serving abroad like to receive letters and care packages from people in their hometown, even if they don’t know them.
And Coon, of course, always promotes the march.
“You have to come next year,” he tells this reporter.
When I got off the phone with Coon, I opened my calendar and wrote “March for Soldiers in Glens Falls” on the page for December 2015.
Maybe I’ll invite Roberta, my Queensbury hairstylist, to join me.
She knows all about Coon’s Christmas march.
“My cousin goes every year,” Roberta says.