Where Christmas trees will stay up until April

One Army town's bittersweet celebration

A 9-year-old girl singing a Christmas carol for her school choir breaks down into tears realizing her soldier father who's fighting in Iraq won't be home for the holidays.

A 3-year-old totes photos of her dad who's in Iraq, crumpling them and smearing them with kisses. An 11-year-old asks his mom for an impossible gift - for his stepfather to walk through the door on Christmas. "If he could come home," says Curtis Johnson, "that would make my life ... my year."

The past nine months have been difficult for families of soldiers at Fort Carson, an Army post south of Colorado Springs. About 11,000 troops were deployed from Fort Carson to Iraq in April. Most aren't expected to return until spring.

Military families are used to such absences, but this is different. This is war. Soldiers have been dying. This community is reaching out, with efforts that are sometimes firm but often faltering, to capture communal and familial themes that mark the season.

Some see Christmas and New Year's as mile markers on a road to eventual reunions with their loved ones. Most are dealing with the holidays by gathering with friends and family or leaning on the support of the community.

Nonmilitary families have adopted some families. Churches are buying presents or offering food. Merchants are giving discounts to Fort Carson kin.

"There's a lot of things going on," says Army Chaplain Bill Fox. "The YMCA is offering a Christmas dinner. One of the theaters is giving free admission to soldiers and their families."

In many homes, Christmas trees will stay up through the spring, with packages underneath for returning soldiers and their stockings full and dangling from mantles.

Heather Harlan recently spent a weekend afternoon baking Christmas cookies with her daughters, April, 6, and Andréa, 9. Their father, Staff Sgt. Frank Harlan, is with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment west of Baghdad.

With Christmas music playing from a CD, Andréa decorates one cookie snowman as a soldier in her father's unit who was injured when his vehicle hit a mine. "Andréa is having the toughest time," said her mother. "She's daddy's little girl. I just tell her that before she knows it, her daddy will be home."

The girl said she may not open her presents on Christmas, waiting to unwrap them when her father returns. Earlier this month, Andréa caused a stir at her school's choir concert. She began crying while singing a carol about family togetherness on Christmas.

"It made me upset and anxious, because I was worried about my dad and I was sad that he wasn't going to be home," she says.

But holiday traditions continue in the Harlan home. The tree is up, lights are hung from the eaves, and stockings hang over the fireplace. Heather invited women who have loved ones in Iraq to spend Christmas with her family.

People need to be together, she says, to help each other through these hard times. Many are choosing to leave the area to visit relatives elsewhere. Candice Foster is one of them. She'll take her children, Diandra Johnson, 7, and Curtis Johnson, 11, to Kansas to be with her mother. "It's hard enough being here on a daily basis," she says. "But you take Christmas and New Year's, it just magnifies it so much." Candice married Staff Sgt. Morris Foster six days before his unit with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team left for Operation Iraqi Freedom. On her calendar she keeps a running tally of how long he's been gone. She sends him daily letters, carries his dog tags around her neck since the day he left, and refuses to wash his T-shirt that hangs on her bedpost.

At Christmas she plans on rereading her husband's letters, listening to cassette tapes of his voice, and watching videos he sent of him in action.

It's been a tough Christmas season for many Fort Carson people, says Marianne Gilmore, who works at an on-post convenience store. She's trying to lift spirits by offering to wrap presents, providing spaghetti meals or homemade cookies for free, and inviting soldiers to her home in nearby Pueblo for Christmas dinner.

"Some of them just need a mom hug," she says. "These are just boys here. It's something I can do to let them know someone cares."

Simone van Hove is trying to keep things as normal as she can for her children Elena, 7, and Noelle, 3. Her husband, Sgt. Noah Pugh, is with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment. She and a friend who also has a husband in Iraq plan to dress up on Christmas eve, make dinner, and celebrate.

"Our husbands need to know we're here," she says. "It gives them a feeling of stability and strength to know their world here doesn't change."

She tries not to show her emotions to her daughters, the youngest of whom carries around photos of her father.

"Their world is ripped up enough," she says. "They don't need to see me cry."

She's changed her routine, allowing the kids to open some presents early and trying not to make a big deal of Christmas without her husband. Yet some signs of his absence have been obvious. The tree has fallen three times. Elena says, "Daddy's tree never fell down."

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