WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 29, 2009) -- "Reflect, remember, rejoice," is the slogan of the Our Heroes' Tree program, an initiative honoring the service of all military members.
Through a display of ornaments on a tree, the program hopes to recognize and remember both servicemembers and their families.
Stephanie Pickup, an Army spouse, and Marlene Lee, the mother of Soldier, founded the Our Heroes' Tree program in 2005 as a way to stay connected to their Soldiers and bring their communities together.
The program is for everyone connected to the military in some way, Pickup said. "You don't have to be an Army wife to have a hero on the Heroes' Tree," she said.
Lisa Harman teaches at the Morris R. McBride Elementary School at Fort Benning, Ga. This year, when the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division deployed just before the holidays, the school put up a tree and held a dedication and going-away ceremony for the Soldiers.
"We decided to do this because one of our major units here at Fort Benning was deploying," Harman said. "So we did it as the Soldiers deployed."
The students and their families made two ornaments: one to hang on the Heroes' Tree in the lobby of the school, and one to send on deployment with the Soldiers. The Soldiers also wrote letters to their children, and the school compiled them in a book that is available to the students whenever they miss their loved one.
"It just really makes the kids see that no one has forgotten their dad is gone. It lets the whole community see that McBride school is here to support the families of our heroes that are deployed," Harman said. She added the program and ceremony also made the Soldiers feel special, and like they were truly a part of the school.
"I think it also made them realize we weren't going to forget them at all," Harman said. When the Soldiers return home, there will be another "un-trim" the tree ceremony, and they will be able to take their ornaments home.
"Our Heroes' Tree program is a community-based program that honors the service and sacrifice of our nation's military and their families," Pickup explained. The underlying principles allow people to adapt the program to their communities' needs while still maintaining a theme, Lee added.
There are three main principles to the OHT, the founders explained: start a tradition, share community spirit, and join the community together in patriotic pride. The program honors Soldiers and helps to bring their families together to support each other during deployments, or when a Soldier is lost.
The requirements for OHT are two American flags at the top of the "tree," a yellow ribbon, individual ornaments for Soldiers (or other servicemembers), and the recitation of the "Our Heroes' Tree" poem during the tree dedication ceremony, Lee said.
"Whatever we did, we wanted it to be positive and uplifting, and a way to bring people together to support each other, and get to know each other, and to be in this together," Lee said.
The program, while suited to the holiday season, is also ideal for Veterans Day and Memorial Day, or as a farewell for deploying Soldiers, Lee added. The "tree" does not have to be a tree, either -- as long as it has flags and a yellow ribbon, it can be a bulletin board or some other static display for the ornaments.
Starter kits for the OHT initiative can be downloaded for free from the program's Web Site, <a href="http://www.ourheroestree.com"target=_blank>www.ourheroestree.com</a>. In each kit there are guidelines for how the tree should look, a timeline for the dedication ceremony, and suggestions and ideas on how to start personalized OHT traditions.