LISBON, N.D. - Santa wears a special suit when he visits veterans, and the holiday takes on an extra special meaning for him, too.

For the past six or seven years, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Tangen has joined with his fellow North Dakota National Guardsmen who have volunteered to purchase and deliver Christmas gifts for residents at the North Dakota Veterans Home in Lisbon, N.D. It's been an annual Christmas tradition for the Airmen and Soldiers, who donate their time and money to make the event happen.

But something was missing: Santa. So, this year Tangen wore a custom Santa suit - "made by my chief elf Betty" - of camouflage with white fur cuffs and hems. Asked about his weight seeming to surpass Guard standards, Santa quickly responded that the Guard Bureau had graciously granted a waiver for that bowl full of jelly.

During Tangen's first visit to the Veterans Home, he spoke with a vet during lunch and then presented him with the gift. As everyone else opened theirs, the veteran just watched. Tangen let him know that he could open his gift, but the veteran said it was the only gift he'd be getting that year, so he wanted to save it for Christmas Eve.

It's veterans like him, and more than 100 others, who make this an important mission for all of the Guardsmen who take part. For Master Sgt. Glenda Edwardson, the mission begins well before the Christmas event. Every other year, when the Air Guard takes the planning lead, she volunteers her time to purchase the gifts. This was her fifth year in the past decade, and it'll be her last; she'll retire before the next event.

"This lady has made this possible for a very long time now," said Chaplain (Col.) William Ziegler.

This year, Edwardson completed her mission a little faster since she "had a couple of helpers who were training in."

"It took about two-and-a-half days of shopping, including running around and online shopping," she said.

Many of the veterans ask for basic care items. In the past, she's purchased a lot of clocks and razors. This year saw more clothing.

That's what Daryl Unterseher was hoping for. The Vietnam veteran who spent time in the Army and Navy as well as with the North Dakota National Guard's 164th Engineer Company asked for gloves and needed a new pair of jeans, too.

Some requests are more challenging to find.

Tech. Sgt. Tracy Zidon worked with the staff at the Veterans Home to develop a list of items the residents wanted, and Edwardson took care of the "checking it twice" portion.

The most unusual gift she's purchased was for a veteran this year - a stand-up poster of the Three Stooges.

"We have fun doing it, and I like watching them open their gift and seeing their reaction," Edwardson said. "The more unusual it is, the more you want to see their reaction since you went through more work to find it."

She suspects one veteran has been having a little extra fun making his requests each year. He always asks for a model that doesn't exist or that hasn't been released yet.

"I think he knows," she said. "He's just trying to make us spin our wheels."

Last year, Joe Klein received a barber print for his room. The former barber and World War II veteran will be able to add even more color to his walls this year after the proud Navy veteran opened a framed Navy-themed poster.

Besides visiting over lunch and opening gifts, the event included a special video presentation from the 119th Wing's Multimedia Office. Soldiers with the 188th Army Band led the group in singing Christmas carols and the Lisbon High School's Swing Choir, under the direction of John Monilaws, made a special musical presentation. Poinsettias from Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley also were delivered and filled the tables with Christmas color and messages of thanks for the veterans' service.

One final gift was presented before the Guardsmen left. Veterans Home director Mark Johnson announced that the Guardsmen had also pitched in $4,000 for items to be purchased for the new Veterans Home, which should be completed by spring.

"I think the residents enjoyed it, the staff enjoyed it, the military participants enjoyed it ... and Santa had a blast," Tangen said.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the North Dakota National Guard has mobilized more than 3,500 Soldiers and more than 1,800 Airmen in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Currently, about a dozen North Dakota Guardsmen are serving overseas while more than 4,000 remain in the state for emergency response and national defense. For every 10,000 citizens in North Dakota, 65 serve in the North Dakota National Guard, a rate that's more than four times the national average.

Photos: High-resolution photos to accompany this release are available on Flickr: Navigate to the photo set titled "Lisbon Veterans Home - Christmas 2010."