Sprawled in his recliner, tired and achy after three days of nearly nonstop work, James Ward hardly looks like Santa Claus.
But this laid-off truck driver has just made Christmas brighter for thousands of U.S. service members overseas by mailing them miniature, live spruce trees with all the holiday trimmings.
A year after Ward started Operation Christmas Tree to cheer up his deployed stepdaughter and a few dozen of her fellow soldiers in Iraq, the project has blossomed into a national campaign that shipped 5,000 potted trees this season.
About 2,200 of the 2-foot trees — packed along with bags of colorful ornaments and battery-powered lights — were mailed Dec. 3 to individual service members, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose families paid $20 to Ward's nonprofit organization.
Some of those service members also received a batch of 50 or 60 extra trees to share with others. Other batches were sent to chaplains in the war zone to hand out to anyone in uniform who wants one.
The $80,000 balance not paid by donations was covered by the Armed Forces Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that helps the families of deployed troops. Local businesses also collected donations.
Man heeded the call during Katrina, too
For Ward, 34, Operation Christmas Tree is an expression of the code he was taught by a firefighter uncle: "I was always brought up that if somebody's in need of something, you help them."
The same principle prompted Ward to lead a convoy of donated goods to Gulf Coast hurricane victims in 2005.
"If you can get seven tractor-trailer loads down to Katrina with all that going on, you can ship 5,000 trees," he said.
But not without a lot of help. About 350 volunteers from as far away as Phoenix helped the Ward family pack the trees for shipment Dec. 1, working close together in a 40-by-60-foot rented tent at the nearby Carroll County Agriculture Center. Donated barbecued beef fed the volunteers. The trees, purchased from a North Carolina grower, had been parked there for a month, kept alive with regular waterings by the Westminster Fire Department.
Program offers change of pace
The president of the Armed Forces Foundation, Patricia Driscoll, said Operation Christmas Tree is a joy for her staff members, who spend most of their time arranging housing, counseling and other services for families of injured warriors.
"When you're dealing with the sick and wounded all the time, it can get depressing. This was really fun," she said.
This year's 5,000 trees were a huge increase over the 75 that Operation Christmas Tree shipped last year — half to Ward's Army medic stepdaughter, Spc. Luisa Gonzalez, and members of her unit. Gonzalez, 23, now stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, while awaiting discharge early next year, came home to help with the tree packing.
"I've been that person on the other end and it just meant a lot to be there to see the next wave," she said. "In Iraq, every day's the same — no holiday — so that little piece of home gives that holiday season something special."
A family affair
Ward's wife, Betty; stepdaughter Elizabeth, 20, and daughter, Marie, 2, also worked on Operation Christmas Tree.
Photographs of Ward and his wife meeting first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are displayed on the living room wall, and a scrapbook is filled with thank-you notes from service members and their families.
But Ward said there's one reward he's missing: seeing the trees as they're received by the troops.
"I'd love to be a fly on the wall to watch them open them," he said. "Trust me, it's satisfying doing it, but it would be so cool to see these guys open some of them."