When Army Spc. Geoffrey Brannen-Davies was told in late November that there was a package waiting for him, he certainly didn’t expect it to contain a live Christmas tree. Brannen-Davies, a 2004 graduate of Midlakes High School in Phelps, had been stationed in Baghdad, Iraq, with the 501st Parachute Infantry since October, and he was expecting this Christmas to be very different from those he’d known in the past.
A live evergreen tree, however, was exactly what he found when he opened the box.
“He was just flabbergasted when he got the tree,” said Mary Ellen Darling, who with her husband, Dick, owns a Christmas-tree farm in Phelps. The Darlings spearheaded a local effort to put real Christmas trees into the hands of military families and servicemen and women such as Brannen-Davies through a program called Trees for Troops.
Trees for Troops began in 2005 and is organized by FedEx and the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation, which is the charitable branch of the National Christmas Tree Association. This association of Christmas-tree farmers expects to send more than 11,000 trees this Christmas to military families throughout the country and to 25 military bases in the United States and abroad.
The Darlings said that Brannen-Davies called them on Nov. 26 to thank them for the Christmas tree. The couple, who belong to the St. Felix/St. Francis Parish Cluster in Clifton Springs and Phelps, decided to participate in Trees for Troops this year because they wanted to do something for the individuals serving their country during the holidays.
People often debate whether the United States should have gone to war with Iraq and whether troops should remain there, Mary Ellen Darling said, but they don’t often stop to think about the individual soldiers who are spending the holidays far from their families.
“We have some pretty special guys and ladies over there, and we just wanted to thank them, to pay tribute to them and support them,” she said.
The Darlings volunteered their tree farm as one of the Trees for Troops program’s 10 collection sites in New York state. They were only responsible for providing 30 Christmas trees — donated from either their own farm or other local farms — but were able to provide 46 trees, thanks to overwhelming support from the local community, Darling said.
“Our little community gathered 46 trees. People came out of the woodwork to offer money,” she said, noting that several other local growers also stepped forward to donate trees. “We sent a little note with each of the 46 trees. We put in a little message wishing them a merry Christmas … and God bless them and be safe. We’re hoping to hear back from some of the servicemen.”
The Christmas trees left Darling’s Tree Farm in mid-November and, with the help of free shipping by FedEx, were expected to reach their destinations by Dec. 10. Brannen-Davies’ tree was actually shipped separately, since the Darlings and other contributors had no way of knowing where the trees shipped through the national program would end up.
“The community got into it and said, ‘We want to do something for our local guys, because we don’t know where these other trees will go,'” Darling said. “I can’t even tell you how this has really evolved.”
Local citizens’ generosity and concern for servicemen and women didn’t end with donations of money and trees. Children and adults alike wrote more than 350 letters and cards, which were to be delivered with the trees to Brannen-Davies and other members of the military. Students at DeWitt Road Elementary School in Webster contributed another 200 cards and letters, and a gentleman from Naples donated several large boxes full of baseball caps he’d collected.
Heidi Brannen convinced a local retailer to donate gift bags, and she plans to send the gift bags and the collection of hats to her son in Baghdad. He will put the hats in gift bags and put them under the tree so everyone in his unit has at least one present to open on Christmas Day, Brannen said.
“Now he’s got me sending Christmas ornaments over,” she added.
Since Brannen-Davies and the others in his unit didn’t expect to have a Christmas tree, they don’t have any ornaments to decorate it. Instead, they’ve been creating makeshift ornaments from pieces of old grenades and anything else they can get their hands on, Brannen said.
Brannen-Davies has told his fellow soldiers the tree is for all of them to enjoy, but he is still the envy of his unit, his mother said. Several members of his unit make it a point each day to come in and look at the tree — and even smell it — and this little piece of home and normalcy has made a world of difference to her son and the others in his unit, she said.
“When they opened the box, pine needles went everywhere. He (later) said, ‘I had a real mess to clean up, but it was worth it. … Mom, I can’t believe I have a real tree. We’re in the middle of nowhere and we have a real tree,'” Brannen recalled.
Brannen-Davies also was deeply touched by all the cards and letters he received, his mother said, noting that people are still calling her and asking for her son’s address so they can write to him.
“He’s trying to respond to anybody and everybody that wrote to him. He said, ‘I can’t believe this many people really care about me,'” Brannen said.