Home for the holidays takes on special meaning

Posted: Monday, December 24, 2001

Yellow ribbons are fluttering in the frigid breeze this week from a 20-foot Christmas tree outside the Anchor Point Roadhouse.

A project of the Ladies Auxiliary of VFW Post No. 10221, the bright bows are meant to buy telephone cards to help military members call home from distant posts around the world.

In a tradition organizers believe goes back to the Civil War, the yellow ribbons symbolize the hope that a loved one will return home safely. But at least two local families need no ribbons to remind them of sons serving overseas in the ongoing war against terrorists.

Helping to decorate the ribbon tree last week was Sandy Dress, whose 27-year-old son, Josh, is an Army staff sergeant with the 10th Special Forces Group based at Fort Carson, Colo.

It's no secret that the elite troops of the U.S. Special Forces have played a pivotal role in ousting the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from the caves of Afghanistan. But Josh's father, retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Dress, is coy about his son's whereabouts.

All he'll say is "he's forward deployed" -- military lingo for a unit that's moved out from the homeland bases toward what commanders often refer to as "the tip of the spear."

But then the Dress family is a military family with three generations of career Army service, so being separated at the holidays is not a new thing. And Josh is a noncommissioned officer with about eight years experience in the Army.

Even Josh's wife, Jennifer, is an Army staff sergeant with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and recently returned to Colorado from a tour of duty in Bosnia.

"I don't know that you get used to it, but you deal with it," Jim said Tuesday. He also is commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Anchor Point.

Homer resident Tom Hagen and his wife, Sandy, are still adjusting to the idea of Christmas without their son Ian, a 2000 graduate of Homer High School.

Ian is an Army cavalry scout with an armored division based in Germany. The 20-year-old private first class already been has in and out of Afghanistan's combat zone at least two or three times, based on several calls home in November, Tom said this week.

Although contact with the former Mariner star wrestler and football player, singer and actor has been sporadic, Tom believes his son is now back in Germany, but on 24-hour call for action. "He bought a ticket" home, but Tom doubts he'll be able to use it for Christmas.

Ian's mother is ready, Tom said.

"Sherry has done an American flag theme on the tree this year. She's wrapped this red, white and blue ribbon around the tree ... and it was a real classy tree this year, too," he said.

Only Ian's second Christmas away from home, "We had looked forward to seeing him this Christmas ... . We wanted to just talk to him," Tom said. "Gosh, a lot of things have happened" the past few months.

It's just that sort of voice contact that the yellow-ribbon tree in Anchor Point is all about, said Mary Bartlett, president of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary.

While it's all part of Operation Uplink, a national VFW project that helps distribute calling cards to troops overseas, the yellow-ribbon tree glistening along the Sterling Highway was actually the brainchild of Peggy Campbell. Camp-bell, who with her husband, Jim, operates the Anchor Point Roadhouse, also is a key player in annual holiday food drives for Helping Hands and the senior citizens center.

Businesses around Anchor Point are offering $1 ribbons for the tree. Donations collected will go to state VFW officials and be forwarded to the national effort to buy calling cards for the troops, Bartlett said.

"It's kind of nice to see everybody pay attention and care about them," Sandy Dress said as she warmed up in the Roadhouse last Thursday after helping decorate the tree in near-zero temperatures.

Not all armed service members far from their homes are overseas, however. Stationed in Homer with the Coast Guard cutters Sedge and Roanoke Island are a total of 74 men. Although under the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, not the Defense Department, except while serving in a war, the technicality means little when the crews are enforcing maritime laws or rescuing fishers.

While some crew members have their families with them in the 20-unit Coast Guard housing area or other Homer residences, "a little less than half the 57 crew members of the Sedge are not married," said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Cashin, the Sedge's captain.

Cashin and Lt. Chris Holmes, skipper of the Roanoke Island, both say they pay close attention to the stress of holiday loneliness -- especially for the younger, single crew members.

The Roanoke Island's crew tends to be a bit older, but the average age aboard the Sedge is just over 21, with about a half dozen crew only age 18, Cashin said.

"Combine that with (Alaska's) darkness, especially for some of the crew from California or Texas," and Cashin said "it kind of closes in on you."

But holiday invitations from local families in and out of the Coast Guard -- as well as a special onboard dinner and a joint party planned for both cutters -- help bring a little family spirit to the single crew members, their commanders said.

"We're a real tight-knit group," Holmes said. So the people go and visit with folks in town. Even though eight of the Roanoke Island's 18 crew members are single, "nobody is alone on the holidays," he said.

R.J. Kelly is the managing editor at the Homer News.

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