Reflections on Operation Holiday Message for the Troops
Operation Holiday Message for the Troops was held from 4-7 p.m. Dec. 20, 2011, at New Lenox Village Hall. The first-ever event was sponsored by Ann C. Piasecki, owner of Family Back Stories, and produced by Tyler Morris, owner of Wild West Online Productions. The military family stories are slated to be posted on New Lenox Patch.com beginning on Christmas Eve. Like many of the stories I have covered as a journalist and family life story writer, the stories revealed in the New Lenox Community Television studio were about relationships, real people and community.
Nervous about the first-ever Operation Holiday Message for the Troops, I spent the hours before the event dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" to make sure that everything came together smoothly.
Confident already in the capabilities of Don Winnie, director of New Lenox Community Television, to record the in-studio videos of military families that ultimately offered their heartfelt messages for loved ones away from home, I focused on selecting simple props—long red stockings, a snowman, Santa Clause figurine and an angel—to conjure images of Christmas celebrations back home. I put out a couple boxes of candy canes next to a few coloring books and a box of crayons; this was something to keep the little people busy if they had to wait for a while.
Release forms giving permission to post the videos on YouTube were printed and a follow-up information sheet was prepared. The first video was shot in the morning at New Lenox Fire Protection District Station No. 1 by Tyler Morris, owner of the New Lenox-based Wild West Online Productions—his on-site job was directing and calming the mostly camera-shy storytellers; the tedious editing process would begin the next day. Thirty-some firefighters, including Chief Jon Mead and NLFPD Trustee Glen Krohn, along with the firehouse dog, a 65-pound Plott Hound named Buster, gathered round a shiny red fire truck—seven guys climbed onboard to hold up a Merry Christmas sign prepared the day before.
Fully aware that video directing is foreign territory for me, I was grateful to step back and let Tyler take the reins. It took three "takes" to get a seven second shot—it's not as easy as it sounds to get 30 people reciting a lengthy phrase in-sync. The tale behind that story was complicated by the fact that Buster preferred to show his tail to the camera rather than the friendly face that regularly greets the crew. The best part of their message was totally unscripted and impromptu—it was the collective laugh that echoed off the walls, ceiling and 20-foot tall garage doors that turned a simple greeting into an authentic message.
The next stop was village hall. Mayor Tim Baldermann and Economic Development Director Nancy Hoehn had been working behind the scenes, lending their support and welcoming family participation. Front Office Administrative Assistant Kim Kulovitz along with Village Clerk Laurie Ruhl, both of whom are longtime friends, greeted me with a hug and volunteered to stay after work to help maintain organization. I told them I'd be sure to call if they were needed. However, I had a sophomore from Providence Catholic High School and prayer group friend, Wayne Dabrowski, scheduled to show up.
I donned a red Santa hat and asked Kim for an honest opinion—did it look all right? I wore it throughout the evening. A few minutes before the family shoots were set to begin, the village staff gathered around a Christmas tree and declared their Merry Christmas to the troops from the Home of Proud Americans.
Then Don, Tyler and I cocooned back in the studio, awaiting the arrival of families. We had absolutely no idea how many people would take advantage of our volunteer campaign on behalf of the community. Reporters and photographers from local media arrived to cover the event. The first hour was slow, so we traded war stories—I've been a journalist for 30-plus years—about the events we'd covered, from basketball games to natural disasters. A guy named Andy walked in carrying a shoulder mounted video camera. He was shooting a TV clip that would be made available to multiple Chicago news station outlets. I know it's out there somewhere because Facebook friends notified me that it was broadcast on the morning news. But I still can't find it.
Then a steady stream of families began arriving. I had the privilege of preparing them for the shoot. There was no time for small talk; we went straight to the heart of the matter. They each carried inside an ache now or in years past that was created by war.
A man and wife duo came in and filled out the paperwork. As he took his coat off, I noticed a picture of his son on his shirt. The soft smile on his wife's face seemed as fragile as a brittle leaf on a windy autumn day. They sat in the chairs and wished everyone a Merry Christmas, but the words weren't hardy. The father, somewhere in his mid 50's, said his son had been missing in action in the Middle East since 2009. The story spilled out like a thick fog over a Scottish bog. A sense of sadness filled the room and carried with it a near tangible element. The pain they live with daily is deep and stabbing. What seems to help them get through is the outreach effort they pour into the American Legion in New Lenox. The couple is committed to helping veterans once they return home.
Another family—mom, dad, sister and young nephew—shared life-giving, simple daily happenings. Dad told him that he'd replaced the headlights on his jeep, so it's ready and safe to drive when he gets home this winter. His mom told her story in Spanish. I don't speak Spanish, but I understood her "I love you" message that comes across in any language. As she wiped away her tears, the sister was intent on ending with an uplifting smile. Her infant son slept in a carrier at her feet.
What these current military families share in common is an underlying sense of fear and trepidation. They have a working knowledge of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and snipers, and talk openly about the potential for loss of limb and life. For them, these are not merely terms; the troops are not statistics. They are sons, daughters, husbands and wives. They have names, faces and families who love them.
All total, including the NLFPD and the village staff, about 75 people offered to share a message, a story that reveals love-in-action from the home front. It was a privilege to help families tell their stories.