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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Families bring the holidays

Jacqueline Bonivel, left, and Jasmine Bonivel made their Christmas cards for their dad, Timothy Bonivel, a warrant officer, at a gathering for families of the U.S. Army Reserve's 983rd Engineer Battalion. Jacqueline Bonivel, left, and Jasmine Bonivel made their Christmas cards for their dad, Timothy Bonivel, a warrant officer, at a gathering for families of the U.S. Army Reserve's 983rd Engineer Battalion.

Trent Heisler is getting a new Christmas card from his grandmother every few days.

Mickey Avalos is getting holiday greetings from 2,000 of his biggest fans.

And Otis Grissom, he got one serious Christmas dinner in October.

Of all the sacrifices made by U.S. troops deployed or soon to be on their way to serve in the Middle East, perhaps one of the hardest is spending the holidays away from friends and family. Local residents are doing their best to ease the strain.

Sometimes that means looking out for the troops, sending them cards and care packages. At other times, that means taking care of their families or celebrating in a more unorthodox way.

Every little bit helps for troops who particularly miss home at this time of year, said the Rev. Jeff Wheeland, senior pastor at Fallen Timbers Community Church in Waterville who also is a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve s 983rd Engineer Battalion.

It really is tough for troops who have little children to be away from their first Christmas, he said last week from Camp Atterbury in Indiana, where his unit is training for a mission in Iraq. Just this morning, a soldier came in and was talking to me about missing his daughters opening presents.

It can be tough for their families too, and Pastor Wheeland s church hasn t forgotten them. Fallen Timbers sponsored a number of initiatives, including a recent movie night for the children of these families so that parents could go holiday shopping. The congregation also collected a couple dozen Thanksgiving turkeys for them and has similar plans for Christmas, said Marvene Farthing, the church s coordinator for these efforts.

Pastor Wheeland asked soldiers families who aren t sure exactly when their loved ones will be sent abroad but know it will be soon to be patient and supportive.

The last thing they need is criticism from a spouse or children, he said. They have no control over their mission or when they leave.

Toledoan Shelly McCoy realized there were some things she could control, though like when to celebrate Christmas. So instead of feeding her fear over her fiance heading back to Iraq for a second tour, she fed him.

Oh, did she feed him, piling high helpings of turkey and ham, baked macaroni and cheese, jambalaya, sweet potato casserole, and pecan pie as part of a surprise Christmas party in October.

We were talking one time about the things he missed the most, and he said it was the holiday meals, Ms. McCoy said.

The Thanksgiving meal Army Spec. Otis Grissom, 30, would have in Kuwait a month later greasy pizza couldn t compare to the southern feast prepared for him as part of this celebration that included who else? Santa Claus.

When Santa Claus came out he was laughing hysterically, said Ms. McCoy, director of enrollment services at Mercy College of Northwest Ohio. My fiance is quite a big strapping fellow, so Santa s thigh was falling asleep a little bit.

Shelly McCoy organized a surprise Christmas party in October for fiance Otis Grissom before he left for Iraq. Shelly McCoy organized a surprise Christmas party in October for fiance Otis Grissom before he left for Iraq.
LUKE WARK / THE BLADE Enlarge | Buy This Photo

The two were acquainted when Ms. McCoy became Mr. Grissom s pen pal during his first tour in Iraq, during which he missed two Christmases. A paratrooper with the Army s 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg, N.C., they met after he returned, and on the eve of his next deployment this November, he proposed. Now he s preparing to spend his third consecutive Christmas away from home.

I just can t imagine three years in a row being away from your family and loved ones, Ms. McCoy said. I ve only been away from my family for one Christmas, and it was terrible.

For those who remain here while their loved ones are away in the military, people like Dawn Heisler, it s not easy either.

Her grandson, Trent, 20, had never been out of the country before he left for the Middle East five months ago. The Sylvania Northview High School graduate is a lance corporal with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment.

It s hard. There s an empty chair, his grandmother said. I send him a Christmas card about every three days. It s hard to know what to write. Just the fact that he s getting cards. He says keep it coming, so I do.

To assist others like her grandson, she helped start the Heroes in Action program at Calvary Assembly of God in South Toledo. Earlier this month, it sent out 17 big boxes crammed full of goodies footballs and Frisbees and snacks and some seasonal items.

We had stockings in them and we had candy canes that we filled throughout the box, said Mrs. Heisler, of Sylvania Township.

Bedford High School in Monroe County has an even bigger holiday surprise waiting for its assistant principal, Mickey Avalos, who is a captain in the 983rd.

Back in October, the entire school gathered for an assembly and shouted Happy Holidays for a video greeting card that school officials are creating. Then the sophomore class, for which Captain Avalos had responsibility, dressed in red, white, and blue and made a giant human flag shimmering from foul line to foul line.

It was the coolest thing you could have seen, said Kathryn Jewell-Quigley, a special education teacher and the leader of the initiative called Project Mickey. Everybody was a little wiggly, so the rows looked like they were kind of waving in the wind.

The video will supplement the letters a student group wrote to members of the battalion as well as the packages of cookies and candy and homemade angel decorations students prepared.

And this holiday stuff is just the beginning.

We re in this until they come home, Ms. Jewell-Quigley promised.

She knows how much it can mean. She had a nephew serving in Kuwait.

They crave human contact, she said. E-mails are fine, but hanging onto that letter s a lot better.

Knowing this, Petra Bonivel, whose husband Timothy is a warrant officer in the 983rd, organized a letter-writing campaign at Waterville Elementary School, where her two daughters attend. She collected over 250 Christmas cards as a result of the effort.

Also, her daughters Jasmine, 8, and Jacqueline, 7, were among those children who created homemade cards for dad at a tree-lighting ceremony last week for soldiers in the 983rd.

There are some times, however, that being reminded of the holidays isn t always a help, as Pastor Wheeland discovered.

I started playing Christmas carols at chapel, he said. My assistant told me to stop since it makes people homesick.

Contact Ryan E. Smith at: ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.

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