Sprawled in his recliner, tired after three days of nearly nonstop work, James Ward hardly looks like Santa Claus.
But this laid-off truck driver has just made Christmas brighter for thousands of US service members overseas by mailing them miniature, live spruce trees with all the holiday trimmings.
A year after Mr. Ward started Operation Christmas Tree to cheer up his deployed stepdaughter and a few fellow soldiers in Iraq, the project has blossomed into a national campaign that shipped 5,000 potted trees this season.
About 2,200 of the two-foot trees – packed along with bags of colorful ornaments and battery-powered lights – were mailed Dec. 3 to individual service members, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose families paid $20 to Ward's nonprofit organization.
Some of those service members also received a batch of 50 or 60 extra trees to share. Other trees were sent to chaplains in the war zone to hand out.
The $80,000 balance not paid by family donations was covered by local businesses and the Armed Forces Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that helps the families of deployed troops.
For Ward, Operation Christmas Tree is an expression of the code he was taught by an uncle: "I was always brought up that if somebody's in need of something, you help them."
About 350 volunteers from as far away as Phoenix helped the Ward family pack the trees for shipment Dec. 1, working close together in a rented tent at the nearby Carroll County Agriculture Center.
The president of the Armed Forces Foundation, Patricia Driscoll, says Operation Christmas Tree is a joy for her staff members, who spend most of their time arranging housing, counseling and other services for families of injured soldiers.
"When you're dealing with the sick and wounded all the time, it can get depressing. This was really fun," she says.
Ward's Army medic stepdaughter, Spc. Luisa Gonzalez, now stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, while awaiting discharge, came home to help.
"In Iraq, every day's the same – no holiday," she says, "so that little piece of home gives that holiday season something special."