By Ed Brock
Army Sgt. 1st Class Jaye Powell looked on as her two daughters, Alexis and Tanisha, joined a group of other children in pulling the switch to officially light Army Garrison Fort Gillem's Christmas tree.
Powell, who lives in Jonesboro, said she was thankful to be home for this Christmas. She knows it's a Yuletide during which many soldiers will miss their families because they are fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan or are posted far from home on other missions.
"I know how it is to be away," said Powell, who once spent Christmas in Bosnia.
Thursday night's tree lighting, celebrated in music by the fort's Army Band and five members of the Adamson Middle School orchestra, came two days after a similar ceremony at Fort Gillem's parent facility, Fort McPherson in Atlanta. The Commander of both bases, Col. Angela Manos, and Lt. Gen. Joseph R. Inge, commanding general First U.S. Army, and his wife joined the celebrations that had been moved inside the Getaway Club due to Thursday's inclement weather.
Manos said both ceremonies were beautiful, but she is also looking forward to Monday's lighting of the Soldier's Tree. That tree, placed on Hedekin Field on Fort McPherson, will be dedicated to all the soldiers who have died in the war in Iraq, but especially to two Georgia soldiers, Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry L. Wilson of Thomson and Diego Rincon of Conyers.
Rincon, 19, born in Colombia, was killed March 29 when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb at a roadblock. He was granted American citizenship posthumously.
The soldiers in the fort's Better Opportunity for Single Soldiers program came up with the idea for the tree, said the fort's Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Hall.
"One of the pillars of the BOSS program is community service," Hall said.
Manos said she was impressed.
"It really says a lot about our young soldiers that they would think about that," Manos said.
Rincon's father and brother visited Fort Gillem for a Veteran's Day luncheon last month and Hall attended Wilson's funeral on Wednesday.
This being the first Christmas since the Iraq war began added something to Thursday's tree lighting, the soldiers said.
"I think it makes the soldiers appreciate what they have and what they're fighting for," Manos said.
Sgt. Maj. Willie Ash, who lives on base at Fort Gillem and is married with two children, has also spent Christmas away from home while on training exercises. He's especially happy to be home for this Christmas.
"I just got home from Baghdad (in July)," Ash said. "This is going to be the hardest time of the year for (the soldiers remaining in Iraq and other posts overseas). We have to give all our support to their families."