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Real Christmas Tree Finds Home on Camp Taji

By Cpl. Benjamin Cossel, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP TAJI, Iraq, Dec. 20, 2004 – It's an age-old debate this time of year: real or artificial? Christmas tree that is.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Sgt. Maj. Della St. Louis, of Ludington, Mich., operations sergeant major with Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, shows members of the Iraqi National Guard how to decorate a Christmas tree. The Douglas fir tree was donated by Needlefast Evergreens Inc. An arrangement was made to have the trees shipped to Iraq with St. Louis responsible for shipping only. Photo by Cpl. Benjamin Cossel, USA
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

And for many soldiers in Iraq who are real-tree enthusiasts, their location is causing them to do the unthinkable -- get an artificial tree. That is, of course, unless you happen to be Army Sgt. Maj. Della St. Louis, operations sergeant major for Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade Combat Team, of the 1st Cavalry Division.

"I have never had a fake tree, and I have no intention of having one this year," St. Louis said.

Frustrated by her inability to get a real tree on the Iraqi market, St. Louis sent out a distress call. "I sent an e-mail to a friend of mine who lives next door to my parents," the Ludington, Mich., native said. "My parents live right next door to a Christmas-tree nursery that my family has been going to for years to get their trees."

It didn't take long once the wheels were set in motion for an arrangement to be made where St. Louis would get her real, Douglas fir tree. Needlefast Evergreens Inc. agreed to donate two trees as long as St. Louis would cover the shipping costs. Without any hesitation the deal was made, and the trees began their long journey from the friendly confines of a Michigan tree nursery to Camp Taji, Iraq.

"I only had to cover shipping," St. Louis chuckled. "That's got to be the least expensive Christmas tree I've ever bought."

Once the trees made it to their final destination and were unpacked, the reaction from soldiers was universally the same: "Is that a real tree?"

St. Louis beamed proudly. "Why indeed it is!" she said.

Wanting to spread a bit of holiday cheer, St. Louis decided to take the tree for a grand tour of Camp Taji, stopping along the way to have soldiers help her decorate it. "What good is having a Christmas tree if you can't spread a little bit of the holiday season with it?" she asked.

Packing the tree, ornaments and candy canes into a Humvee, St. Louis took off, playing the role of Santa in desert camouflage uniform and a Kevlar helmet. First stop on the tour: Checkpoint #1.

Pulling to the side of the road, the initial look of confusion on the soldiers' faces was quickly replaced with smiles and laughter as St. Louis explained why she was out visiting them and what she wanted them to do. A few more decorations added to the tree, the mobile decorating team moved on to the next location.

"This is so cool!" exclaimed Spc. Brian Sumler, a member of Headquarters Company, 39th Brigade Combat Team, as he added a candy cane to the tree. "I can't believe someone was able to get a real tree into Iraq."

While the tree brought memories of home and the holidays to some troopers, for others, this will be their first Christmas with a real tree.

For Pfc. Erika Bruner, 19, assigned to Headquarters Company, 4th BCT, it's her first Christmas away from home, and the first time she has ever had a real tree. "I told sergeant major [St. Louis] I had never had a real tree before, and she told me that was crazy," Bruner said. "It definitely has a nicer smell then a fake tree."

One of the fully decorated trees found its home in the office of Army Master Sgt. Joni Evans, a 4th BCT career counselor , and the other will be on display at the brigade's tactical operations center.

Shaking his head in disbelief, 4th BCT Administrative Officer Capt. Tavares Tukes said, "Only some kind of Mack or a sergeant major could get a real tree in Iraq."

(Army Cpl. Benjamin Cossel is assigned to the 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)

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Related Sites:
1st Cavalry Division
Multinational Force Iraq

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Pfc. Erika Bruner, of Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, places the traditional topper on a real, Douglas fir Christmas tree. Photo by Cpl. Benjamin Cossel, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Maj. Della St. Louis, operations sergeant major for Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, takes her real Christmas tree on a tour of Camp Taji, Iraq, to have soldiers of the camp help decorate it. Photo by Cpl. Benjamin Cossel, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Spc. Brian Sumler (front) and Pvt. Justin Forman, both from Bebe, Ark., with Headquarters Company, 39th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, place candy canes on a real Christmas tree in Camp Taji, Iraq. Photo by Cpl. Benjamin Cossel, USA  
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