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Reaching out to troops, families

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

When Jeff Webster tied the first yellow ribbon to a tree in front of his home, it was a simple gesture.

Like so many others before him, Webster was symbolizing a wish. He wanted his son, Shane, to come home safely from the battle in Iraq.

By the look of his front yard, Webster has been doing a lot of wishing.

Webster's son Shane, a 22-year-old Soldotna High School graduate, is a Marine serving in Iraq.

"We just found out what he was doing," Jeff Webster said. "He joined a special outfit running a 50-caliber gun on a Humvee. I didn't realize he was going to be in so much danger.

"This has been the hardest week of my life," he said. "As a parent, I've watched my kids have bicycle wrecks, and even a few car wrecks. You pick them up and dust them of.

"But you don't imagine somebody shooting at your child and you can't be there to do anything about it."

Wishing for Shane's safe return is the only thing Webster knows how to do for his son, he said.

"At first, it was just one (ribbon)," he said. "Then I'd get bothered by watching the news and go out and tie a few more, then a few more.

"It's therapeutic for me."

And Webster isn't alone in his feelings of helplessness -- or his desire to support the many U.S. troops serving in the war with Iraq.

His array, located on the Sterling Highway just northeast of Fred Meyer in Soldotna, now includes nearly 300 ribbons. Most Webster put up himself. But, he added, complete strangers also have started adding to the shrine, tying on more ribbons or leaving mementos as a sign of their support.

Displays of yellow ribbons also are cropping up in other places on the Kenai Peninsula. They appear at the homes of other families with loved ones in the military, as well as on the car antennas of every employee at Soldotna City Hall.

Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey also is encouraging area residents to start a collection of yellow ribbons on the fence at Parker Park in Soldotna.

"I've got nine students who have been in this classroom in the last 10 to 12 years (serving in the military)", said Carey, who also is a teacher at Skyview High School. "They are a part of who we are. It's important to let them know home is still here, normal parts of the culture are still going on and that we support them."

With the approval of the Soldotna City Council, Carey used his city expense account to purchase several rolls of yellow ribbon. He will provide wide strips of ribbon to anyone who wishes to add to the fence display between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday. He also will have strips of thinner ribbon for people to tie to their car antennas. He also gave the thinner ribbon to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 10046 in Soldotna, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, Central Emergency Services and the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center to hand out to members of the public.

The ribbon campaign, however, is only one of many efforts community organizations have made to support the U.S. troops serving abroad.

The American Legion offers banners for the families of troops to hang in their windows. The red banners include a blue star for families with loved ones currently serving and gold stars for the parents of troops who were killed in service. The banners are available for free by calling the American Legion.

Also, the Kenai Elks are selling signs for area residents to display in windows or businesses. The signs, which feature a waving flag and the words "We Support Our Troops," are available alone or mounted to stakes. They are on sale for $10 each after 4 p.m. at the Kenai Elks Lodge in Kenai. All proceeds from the sign sales will support veterans programs on the peninsula.

A "Stand Up for America" rally also is being planned for April 5 at 1 p.m. at Leif Hansen Memorial Park in Kenai. Ruth Haring of Kenai is organizing the event, which will include music, drills, colors by area veterans and possibly a marching band. Area law enforcement and emergency services departments, veterans organizations and other service and military-based clubs have been invited to participate in the rally, and all members of the public are invited to attend wearing patriotic colors. Residents are encouraged to bring flags and signs and are asked that all signs be positive and in good taste. For more information on the rally or to help, call Haring at 283-3897.

Haring also is soliciting contributions for a thank you booklet for area veterans. Residents are asked to write a brief positive comment thanking veterans for their service. The comments will be collected into booklets to be distributed to area veterans. To contribute, e-mail haring@gci.net.

Local churches also are doing their part to support troops and their families. Kenai New Life Assembly of God, for example, is asking residents who have family members in the Middle East to call or e-mail the church with the soldier's name and branch of the military. The names will be displayed on a banner at the church, and church members will pray for the individuals. To submit a name, call 283-7752 or e-mail nlag@gci.net.

Finally, the city of Soldotna is conducting a letter-writing campaign, the Red, White and Blue Program, for troops. Another brain-child of Carey, the program posts names, biographies and addresses of local military members on the city's Web site. Area residents are able to submit letters for these soldiers, and the city adds addresses and postage, then sends the letters.

The program, which is supposed to continue through the summer, has been a tremendous success, Carey said. Schoolchildren especially have responded with fervor, writing hundreds of letters. To submit the name and address of a loved one in the military, follow the links at www.ci.soldotna.ak.us/redwhiteblue.htm or contact Carey at city hall. Letters may be dropped off at city hall or sent on the Web site.

Whether sent through the program or privately, Webster said the letters and packages from home are especially meaningful to his son.

Webster's family tries to send a care package every week, while other community members -- even those who have never met Shane Webster or his family -- also send letters and packages. The reminders from home keep the soldier motivated, and he passes out treats from the many care packages to fellow soldiers who receive less support from their communities, Webster said.

"People have been so supportive," Webster said. "(Shane) is totally appreciative of the support from the community."



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