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Fort Bliss lights heroes’ tree

Miranda Minjares, 6, reaches for a Christmas ornament to decorate for the Heroes’ Tree at the Old Fort Bliss Replica Dec. 10. Her father, Petty Officer 1st Class Gilbert Minjares Jr., hospital Navy corpsman, died February 2007 when his helicopter was shot down in Iraq. Photos by Wendy Brown, Fort Bliss Bugle Staff.

Miranda Minjares, 6, reaches for a Christmas ornament to decorate for the Heroes’ Tree at the Old Fort Bliss Replica Dec. 10. Her father, Petty Officer 1st Class Gilbert Minjares Jr., hospital Navy corpsman, died February 2007 when his helicopter was shot down in Iraq. Photos by Wendy Brown, Fort Bliss Bugle Staff.

By Wendy Brown, Fort Bliss Bugle Staff:

Cheryl Allard quickly articulated why she attended this year’s Our Heroes’ Tree Lighting Ceremony at the Old Fort Bliss Replica Dec. 10.

“We’re like a family,” said Allard, gesturing toward the other surviving family members in the room. “It’s like a family that understands what you are going through.”

Allard’s son, Pfc. Glenn Saunders, 18, died November 2011 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. She said being around other survivors helps remind her she is not alone — especially during the holiday season.

The event, cosponsored by Survivor Outreach Services and Hearts Apart, included ornament decorating, a cookie exchange and time for family members to talk. Lynda MacFarland, military family advocate and wife of Maj. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss commanding general, talked about the significance of the tree and the ceremony.

“It’s for all of our service members, their families and their loved ones,” said Lynda MacFarland. “I think it’s a beautiful ceremony and a beautiful program.”

Two children’s book authors, Stephanie Pickup and Marlene Lee, started Our Heroes’ Tree program in 2005, MacFarland said. It is a national initiative, and tree lighting ceremonies are often conducted in civilian communities as a way to connect civilian and military communities. Pickup is the author of “The Soldier’s Tree,” which concerns a Soldier deployed at Christmas time, and Lee is the author of “The Hero in My Pocket,” which is about a fallen Soldier.

Cheryl Allard decorates a Christmas ornament for the Heroes’ Tree at the Old Fort Bliss Replica Dec. 10. Her son, Pfc. Glenn Saunders, 18, died November 2011.

Cheryl Allard decorates a Christmas ornament for the Heroes’ Tree at the Old Fort Bliss Replica Dec. 10. Her son, Pfc. Glenn Saunders, 18, died November 2011.

MacFarland said she first attended a hero tree lighting when her husband commanded a brigade in Friedberg, Germany that had deployed to Iraq.

“We were getting ready to have our Christmas tree lighting, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if instead of our Christmas tree lighting, we had a Heroes’ Tree lighting?’ And so that’s what we did in 2006,” MacFarland said.

The lighting went well, MacFarland said, so well that she decided to ask Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation officials to help her organize a similar lighting when she moved to Fort Bliss in 2009.

The white lights on the tree represent service members the country has lost — for all service members fallen in any war since the United States became a country, MacFarland said.

“The ornaments that people can put on for their loved ones, are for those we’ve lost and also for those who are deployed, to show we’re waiting for them to return,” MacFarland said.

Nancy Thomas-Mainor, chief of Army Community Service, said the Fort Bliss community dedicates the tree to remember the sacrifices of service members and the deployment separation of service members and their families.

“I would like to thank our survivor family members, our family members of deployed service members, the family members of past and present service members, for your presence this evening and allowing us to share with you in honoring your heroes,” Thomas-Mainor said.

First Armored Division Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Karen Meeker stood in front of the lighted tree and prayed for fallen service members.

“I thank (God) for those who come alongside our survivor families and support them,” Meeker said. “They are your angels, and I pray that our survivor families will feel your comfort through them.”

Meeker also prayed for deployed service members. “God, bring them safely home to their families,” she said.

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