BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (November 29, 2008) – A 40 year tradition has brought a family’s holiday tree to Afghanistan.
The small artificial tree decorated with an assortment of hard candies is now on display in Nell’s office as it serves its third wartime mission, and sixth Christmas deployment overall.
“My wife has sent me the tree this year, as is tradition,” said Col. Roger Nell, Command Judge Advocate currently deployed to Afghanistan with Task Force Warrior.
Nell is the second generation in his family to receive the tree in a foreign land. His mother bought the tree in 1967 at their post exchange in the Panama Canal Zone for his dad’s office in Saigon when Staff Sgt. Robert Nell fought bravely in the jungles with Military Assistance Command-Vietnam.
Nell and his mother, Ramona, went to the Panama Canal Zone in the late summer of 1967 to visit with her parents. It was there after a diligent search, that Ramona found a metallic silver tree. Nobody expected this little tree to travel so many miles and to so many different lands.
In early November 1967, Ramona sent the tree to her husband, complete with hard candies as decorative ornaments symbolizing holiday cheer to the Public Information Office in Saigon, where Robert handled the credentialing of news media personnel.
Throughout the years, traditional holiday ornaments have been used to decorate the little tree. However, the hard candies used in the inaugural Christmas tree decoration have been used most often, and continue as the primary ornaments.
Robert tied the candies with holiday ribbons, and also used candy canes as decorations in 1967. He said the tree was set up in his office and was there for anyone to enjoy the treats hanging from its boughs.
“Our little tree has been a source of joy for our family and a way to be together when yet so many miles apart,” said Robert.
During Christmas of 1969, Ramona sent the tree on its second deployment to a hostile zone when Robert was assigned to the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Thailand in Bangkok. It was decorated in a similar manner to brighten all the spirits of those working in the protocol office where Robert scheduled and coordinated visits with elected officials including former President Richard Nixon.
“At the time, I never knew how many lives would be touched by the joy this little tree radiated over the next few decades,” said Robert, whose journey then ended as his son’s began with the little tree that has proudly become known as ‘The Nell Family Deployment Christmas Tree.’
“The tree then spent the next 23 Christmases in hiatus with the family in Florida and later in Iowa,” said Nell.
Ramona sent her son the Christmas tree in 1992, when Nell was deployed to South Camp, Sinai, with Task Force 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in support of the Multinational Force & Observers mission in Egypt.
The next year, Nell was again sent the tree in Camp Howze, Republic of Korea, while he served with the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service and the 2nd Infantry Division.
“During Christmases 1994 through 2002, the tree was safe in the United States at Fort Stewart, Ga., and Clarksville, Tn.,” said Nell.
The tree deployed for its second wartime mission in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nell’s wife, Rhonda, sent the tree to Qayarah Airfield, Iraq, where Nell was assigned to the 1st Brigade, 101st Abn. Div.
This year marks the third wartime deployment for the tree, bringing holiday cheer to members of the 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, and other service members serving with Task Force Warrior and the Combined Joint Task Force-101 during Operation Enduring.
A pair of scissors sits beneath the artificial tree in Nell’s office, and he welcomes all to feel free to cut off a piece as a holiday souvenir and symbol of shared experience with the Nell family.
“My prayer for the tree is for it to be allowed permanent retirement after this Christmas mission so that neither of my children will receive this tree in a foreign land from their mother,” said Nell.