COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Reaching to adjust the straps on his ruck sack, the Soldier's attention is drawn to the tree line. A single, small tent rests between the trees and beside it, the white smoke of a camp fire drifts up and around the weathered hands of a homeless man. Looking to the Soldier the homeless man quickly grabs something from his tent.
As the man unfolds the object he has retrieved, 13 red and white stripes and 50 bright stars are visible. He carefully hangs the U.S. flag from a tree branch next to his tent, then stands back and snaps a sharp salute to the Soldier, who returns the salute and continues his foot march.
Nearly 300 Soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division marched in "Operation: Happy Christmas" to bring camping supplies and warm weather gear to the homeless of Colorado Springs Dec. 18.
The idea for the operation originated with the 1st BCT Chaplain Maj. Charlie Lee, said Staff Sgt. Darrell Cortez, chaplain assistant, 1st BCT, 4th Inf. Div."He wanted to have an outreach program for Soldiers to help people in the area, and the homeless camps along Interstate 25 seemed like a plausible place to start," said Cortez.
Once the idea for the event started to take shape, the chaplain coordinated with the Colorado Springs Police Department Homeless Outreach Team to conduct the foot march, bringing supplies to a location in Colorado Springs, said Cortez.Soldiers and volunteers passed flyers to "Raider" Brigade units detailing the event and the need for donations.
"We got the word out to our units, and they jumped all over the opportunity to do something to give back to this great community," said Cortez.
Operation: Happy Christmas began at 7:30 a.m. with Raider Brigade Soldiers pouring into the 1st BCT parking lot with their donated goods. Once the goods were collected, the donations were then divided amongst the Soldiers participating in the event.
When every Soldier acquired something to put in his or her ruck sack, the formation moved to Dorchester Park, just south of Colorado Springs, where they received a safety briefing and a blessing from the brigade chaplain before the foot march began.
From Dorchester Park, Soldiers marched two and a half miles on fitness trails along the Arkansas River to the event's final destination: The Marian House Homeless Rescue in Colorado Springs.
Along the route, Soldiers passed numerous homeless camps, seeing first-hand the need for the supplies they were carrying. The very people the Soldiers brought supplies for came out of their tents to watch the charitable march."This event speaks a lot for our U.S. military," said Colorado Springs Police Department officer, Brett Iverson. "That they were willing to jump in and help out people in need, not only far away, but here in their hometown."
Iverson, a member of CSPD HOT, has been working with the homeless of Colorado Springs for more than eight years, and said the need for warm weather gear and camping supplies is greater than ever, especially as six homeless people in the area have already been hospitalized for frostbite this year.
To fulfill that need, Soldiers donated camping supplies, boots, blankets, sweaters, baby clothes, socks and food for the event.Arriving at The Marian House, Soldiers came forward, one by one, and placed their donated goods on tables set up in the parking lot.Although homeless men and women gathered at the homeless rescue were allowed to take what they needed, they were hesitant until one Soldier pulled a thick, red blanket off the bottom of the pile and walked it over to a woman waiting in line.
The mood grew joyful as Soldiers worked with the homeless to find the items that would benefit them the most throughout the winter months.
"We have a lot in common with the folks out here," said Deputy Brigade Commander Lt. Col. Brandon Newton, 1st BCT, 4th Inf. Div. "There are a lot of veterans out here, and we are all citizens of this country.
"We understand a lot about deprivation and what it is like to be tired, cold, hungry and wet," he said. "Most of our Soldiers have experienced that, so we've got some common ground."
Nearly every Soldier who participated in the event received heartfelt handshakes or hugs as a sign of gratitude from the men and women receiving the donated goods."We, as Soldiers, get a lot provided to us by the government and a lot of support from the community," said Cortez. "So when we walk by and we see someone who does not have the same blessings we do, it is a sobering experience to be able to look at that and realize just how good we have it and to realize just how much we can give back."