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Duke Field shares holiday spirit

Holiday trees

Christmas trees that were decorated by members of the 919 Special Operations Wing adorn the dining facility at Duke Field, Fla. December 7, 2019. Reservists from the unit donated 50 trees to Emerald Coast Hospice that were donated to patients for the Christmas holidays. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

Holiday tree

Ms. Jennifer McDaniel, Emerald Coast Hospice clinical social worker, places an ornament on a Christmas tree, Nov. 21, 2019, Fort Walton Beach, Florida. The Christmas Tree is part of a drive to get local community members to decorate miniature decorative trees which would be donated to Hospice patients. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dylan M. Gentile)

Holiday trees

Master Sgt. Christina Bicknell, 919th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, delivers Christmas trees her unit decorated to the dining facility at Duke Field, Fla. December 7, 2019. Reservists from the unit donated 50 trees to Emerald Coast Hospice that were donated to patients for the Christmas holidays. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

Holiday tree

Ms. Jennifer McDaniel, Emerald Coast Hospice clinical social worker, holds a decorative Christmas tree, Nov. 21, 2019, Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Because of the involvement of the 919th Special Operations Wing, Emerald Coast Hospice's annual Christmas tree drive will have collected enough trees to distribute them to patients in nearby Crestview, Fla. for the first time. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dylan M. Gentile)

holiday trees

Christmas trees that were decorated by members of the 919 Special Operations Wing adorn the dining facility at Duke Field, Fla. December 7, 2019. Reservists from the unit donated 50 trees to Emerald Coast Hospice that were donated to patients for the Christmas holidays. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- Members of the military at some point in their careers have spent the holiday season hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from friends and families. For some people, the happiest time of the year isn’t always that grand and can even bring with it feelings of sadness and isolation. In those times, the smallest act of kindness can have immense meaning for those on the receiving end.

In an effort to lift the spirits of others this holiday season, 919th Special Operations Wing members recently purchased, decorated and donated several small Christmas trees to Hospice patients throughout the Emerald Coast.

“We got the idea from the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office,” said Senior Master Sgt. Kim Perez, First Sergeant for the 2nd Special Operations Squadron. “They have a similar program that allows their employees to donate small tress to worthy causes every year. They introduced me to one of their employees who helped me organize the effort through hospice.”

Officials who received the trees said their impact on patients is sometime hard to put into words.

“Nine times out of ten, the patients cry when they get these trees,” said Jennifer McDaniel, a clinical social worker for Emerald Coast Hospice. “They know it's going to be their last Christmas tree. We do have a couple that have one or two trees from years back, but that's few and far between.”

McDaniel said the additional trees donated by the 919th SOW helped fill a need for her organization. Although the sheriff's department and a few local businesses in Fort Walton have regularly supported the project, there have only been enough trees in years past to provide to patients in Fort Walton and Destin. This year will be the first time hospice has delivered trees to patients in the Crestview area.

“We're going to get approximately 300 trees this year,” said McDaniel. “We will have enough for the very first time in 11 years to blanket our entire county. If it wasn't for Duke Field and those 50 trees, the Crestview office and other patients in the area would have not had trees.”

Projects like this are helpful because they strengthen partnerships with the community, said Perez.

“It was really easy for us to find the trees, and I think it went over so well that we'd like to do it again next year. I think our Airmen are excited to decorate the trees because it's going to a great cause. This is going to give patients a little bit of hope to brighten their day.”

Members of the wing added an element of competition to the initiative by decorating the trees for a panel of judges who would later decide which squadron had the best trees for this year’s donation.

“A couple of years ago we had someone design a Grinch that had a big sack full of toys that they had encompassed within the tree,” said McDaniel. “We've had Money Trees where they actually rolled up and did origami out of dollar bills and pinned them all over the tree for the patient. We also get a lot of seashell and beach-themed trees because we are in Florida.”

“I would encourage everyone in the military service if they have a minute, an hour, or a couple days to help out in any way in the community to get out and do it,” said McDaniel. “Because an hours worth of time can mean thousands of hours worth of smiles and happiness and good memories.”

At least half of our patients have military backgrounds in one way or the other, said McDaniel.

“To our patients, the fact that our local military members are taking the time to decorate these trees for them makes the trees that much more special,” said McDaniel. “It's like you're still part of that tribe, just knowing that they still care even if it's through a Christmas tree.”