All season long, the Christmas cards have poured into the holiday drop boxes.
Thousands of cards, covered in bright crayon drawings of Santas and Christmas trees and parachuting snowmen wearing camouflage. And each one carries the same message: Happy holidays, soldiers. We love you. Get well soon.
Lee Ann Newton is collecting the cards this year, just as she has for the past five years, and distributing them to young men and women in real need of some Christmas cheer. On Dec. 15, she mailed her final shipment of cards to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where grievously injured soldiers work to heal from terrible injuries. Amputations. Burns.
"We collected 13,000 cards this year," said Newton, an executive assistant at Middle Tennessee State University, who collects the cards from elementary schools and Scout troops, at campus football games and even along the holiday parade route in Murfreesboro. All to bring a little comfort and joy to troops who could use some.
"Thanks soldiers for protecting me!" one child wrote in careful crayon lettering across a homemadeChristmas card.
"Dear hero," reads another. "Thank you for your service! I hope you get better soon. Your friend, Girl Scout Troop (Number) 2116."
The story of Newton's annual Christmas card drive — which she has dubbed Operation Christmas Care — starts with the story of one Marine.
Newton followed the story of Bleill's slow, painful rehabilitation on a blog run by Bleill's sister. One day, close to the holidays, Bleill was coming out of yet another surgery and was in terrible pain.
"He just kept saying, 'Mom, keep reading the cards. Keep reading the cards,'" Newton said.
That idea — the comfort that a Christmas card could bring — stayed with Newton, and she decided to mail a few cards of her own.
"It started with one box at my son's elementary school. One box in one school," she said. Now, she said, Operation Christmas Care collects cards from six Tennessee counties and has so many that this year, for the first time, she began collecting "pennies for postage" to offset the expense of 800 pounds' worth of postage.
"There are always these amazing cards. I've taken pictures of the cards before I send them off. I'm hoping to publish them into a pamphlet so every soldier (in every military hospital) can see them," she said.
Operation Christmas Care has finished this year's delivery of cards, but anyone interested in sending a cardor donation can mail one directly to Judith Markelz, director of the Soldier and Family Assistance Center, Powless Guest House, Second Floor, 3625 George Beach Road, Fort Sam Houston, TX 78234.