The first Home for the Holidays kicked off at the Flags of our Heroes Memorial grounds on Sunday Dec. 16. Local veterans and their families came together to decorate and light a Christmas tree in honor of the active duty military from here and for veterans everywhere. The idea for the Flags of our Heroes Memorial came from Mona Henson of Bridge City. She was inspired by her father. Her father, Donald Vetter of Wisconsin, and her brother are veterans. Her father was a U.S. Marine and her brother was in the U.S. Navy. Once the idea came to her in 2005, she started researching who owned the property on the corner of East Roundbunch and Texas Avenue. She chose the spot because “a lot of people see it,” she said. She wanted to “get some color out there on the grounds.” Cleaning the corner initially was a big job. “The first time I cleaned up; I picked up 12 bags of garbage,” she said. Eventually after her hard work, the grounds were transformed from a drab street corner into the meaningful memorial there today. The Flags of our Heroes organization’s first function was a link sale in early March 2007 to raise money to fund the new grounds. Fundraisers, along with many generous donations from local companies and veterans, made this dream a reality. Five flags fly high and proud on the property. There are flags representing the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and the Coast Guard. Farther in front of those, the United States flag flies, along with the Texas and POW/MIA flags. Underneath the Texas flag, a flag honoring The Patriot Guard is hung. The Guard is a group of motorcycle riders which helps protect families of fallen soldiers from protesters. Henson said she has already received multiple calls asking about The Patriot Guard’s services since she hung the flag earlier this year. Some of her future plans for the grounds include: acquiring a five-foot eagle statue, adding a big bell to symbolize the Navy, putting the stone soldiers on platforms, and installing park benches and a picnic table. She is also currently trying to get a Navajo code talkers flag to honor the code talkers from World War II. The Navajo counsel must approve her request for the flag before they can send her one. If they approve it, she will fly it underneath the Marine flag already there. The idea for the Home for the Holidays project developed in late October. Some friends mentioned putting up a tree and Henson wanted to find a way to remind the community that there are still men and women in Iraq who can’t be home for Christmas. The tree was put up to honor them and all veterans. She wanted a patriotic-themed tree with red, white and blue. All of the decorations on the tree and around the grounds were donated by the people in the community who have family fighting in Iraq. “The community has been awesome in donating stuff,” Henson said. People even left things hanging on her doorknob when she wasn’t there. They donated so much, that there were decorations left over. She hopes that the Christmas tree will bring peace to the families of soldiers away from home this year. “Say there’s a momma or a daddy or a wife here and they say…we got a tree up for you…or I got to help go decorate the tree.” Putting a tree up for our soldiers and veterans brings joy to them even in the smallest way. Knowing they are decorating a tree especially for them is rewarding. “I want that tree to be so bright, that they can see it all the way in Iraq. If the moon is right and the stars are right it will reflect right straight over,” Henson said. Operation Home for the Holidays drew a crowd of veterans and their families celebrating the spirit of Christmas and remembering the sacrifices all soldiers have made.They are all thankful for the new Bridge City Memorial. The children enjoyed hanging the decorations. Everyone participated in the Christmas cheer. Veterans who helped decorate the grounds and the tree were: Louis Stanley, Ricky Henson Jr., Buggs Crews, Danny Nelligan and Michael Rowe. A local veteran, Charles “Chuck” Sipes, served in the Army and spent 13 months in Iraq before separating from the Army in late 2004. The Christmas tree at the memorial brought back memories of what it was like in Iraq at Christmastime for him. “To most of us, we missed our families everyday, but we had to keep that in the back of our mind so that we could focus on our day to day tasks. And during the holidays, it’s usually more on your mind. Many soldiers celebrate it in as many makeshift ways as you can imagine. In my unit, someone made a tree out of sticks stuck together with melted plastic and we hung pictures of our loved ones on it for decorations,” he said. He knows that the soldiers in Iraq right now would be overjoyed to know that people are thinking of them this time of year. All the veterans in attendance had great things to say about the project and the memorial. Local veteran Michael Rowe, his wife and his young daughter were there. “I think it’s wonderful that people take the time to do this,” Rowe said. Sipes commented that, “the time, hard work, and dedication put into this memorial means a lot. It’s very positive for the community. It’s right on the corner of the busiest intersection in the city and it makes us [the veterans] hard to forget because so many people see it. It shows the city’s appreciation for the immediate and long-lasting sacrifices that our soldiers make.” The Flags of Our Heroes Memorial Grounds leaves no one out. This memorial honors all soldiers and veterans, whether they have been to war or not. Henson said the memorial is there for the soldiers, veterans and their families. She doesn’t want people to forget that a soldier’s family also sacrifices on a day-to-day basis. “People are so involved in what they’ve got going themselves, they tend to forget.” This Flags of our Heroes Memorial and The Home for the Holidays Christmas tree and decorations are there to remind those people that they are living and “breathing free because of the soldiers’ and their families’ dedication,” she said. So this Christmas holiday, as you pass by the Christmas tree on the Flags of our Heroes grounds, remember the deep dedication and sacrifice our soldiers undertake to keep us free. Think of them and their “stick trees” as you are with your family this Christmas, and take a moment to reflect on what they are doing for you this holiday and everyday of the year.

About Charlotte Sipes