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St. Louis group gives free Christmas trees to 15,000 soldiers

Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Capt. Travis Hairston and his daughter Ella tie a Christmas tree to their vehicle at Fort Leonard Wood. The tree is one of 15,000 given away to soldiers and their families as part of the Trees for Troops program.

More than 15,000 soldiers around the country, including some at Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood, are getting a free, live Christmas tree this holiday season.

The Trees For Troops program coordinates the effort that has tree farms, companies, service groups and individuals donating trees that end up with members of the armed forces and their families.

Capt. Travis Hairston, a chaplain stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, was one of the hundreds of soldiers who picked up a free tree on Friday. This is the first year his family participated in the program.

“We really appreciate the opportunity to have a live tree this year. And it means so much that people would think about us and would care enough so we could have one,” said Hairston’s wife, Cindy.

Their 7-year-old daughter Ella was instrumental in picking the right tree, and she said she can’t wait to decorate it.

“I’d really say that I like all kinds of ornaments,” Ella said.

This year will be Pfc. Kaemon Payne’s first Christmas as an active duty soldier. He said getting a live tree, for free, will make this holiday season brighter.

Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Pfc. Kaemon Payne, his wife, Brooke, and daughter Magnolia search for the perfect tree.

“It’s hard to be so far from family, but our little family will be together, and that’s all we need,” Payne said. “They have some really great trees here. It’s pretty cool to have this opportunity for free and not having to get one. I’m really grateful.”

Many of the trees contained handwritten notes from the people who donated them, with wishes like, “Thank you for your service” and “We love that you are fighting for our country.” Some of the trees also included an ornament for the soldier and their family.

Trees for Troops is a project of the St. Louis-based Christmas Spirit Foundation.

“We’re 100% confident that this helps achieve our mission, because they tell us that it improves their Christmas spirit,” said Rick Dungey, executive director of the foundation. “We often get feedback from families that get a tree that say they weren’t even in the mood for Christmas this year, until they got their tree.”

Trees for Troops is in its 17th year, with Fort Leonard Wood participating in the past 14.

Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Many of the trees included personal, handwritten notes from the people who donated them.

“I think this program ranks very high on the kindness scale,” said Megan O’Donoghue, director of Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation at Fort Leonard Wood. “What makes it unique is that the donations come from all over the country. People don’t know where the trees end up, only that it will be in the home of a soldier.”

Fort Leonard Wood was one of 77 military bases around the country included in Trees for Troops. Tree farms that donated to the program include Meier Horseshoe Pines in Jackson, Missouri, and Daniken Tree Farm in Greenville, Illinois.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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