- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

HAMPTON, Va. — Parents and their children braved a crisp night in this military community to play a part in something larger during a ceremony that inspired tributes to troops overseas.

Bundled up against the breeze, they huddled around an enormous red spruce — Virginia’s first contribution as the Capitol Holiday Tree — that is winding its way through the state to the nation’s capital.

The low-cost, strip-mall celebration Tuesday night — complete with a ceremonial band and a visit from Santa Claus — drew about 250 people from the region’s retired and active-duty military families, many with ties to troops abroad.

“There’s such a special significance to know our family is a part of this,” said Tanya LaMon of Fort Monroe. “It’s a great honor.”

Mrs. LaMon and her two daughters — the family of Army Sgt. 1st Class Ken R. LaMon Jr., who is serving in Afghanistan — presented to event organizers the city’s handcrafted holiday ornament: a sphere with a crab inside.

The ornament was created by local muralist Tisha Rose.

The event was meant to be a send-off for the 70-foot spruce, the Virginia-grown behemoth that will become the focus of holiday cheer on Capitol Hill. It will arrive in Washington on Nov. 29.

Children ran around the vast parking lot in front of the city’s popular Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store, amazed at the size of the tree that lay under a tent on a flat-bed trailer.

Their parents puffed on cigarettes and a few shed tears as the U.S. Army Continental Band played “God Bless America.” They later tapped their toes to the Bethel Temple Choir’s Christmas carols and laughed when their little ones posed for photos with Santa.

“In Hampton Roads, you find a good, supportive group of people who love America and what it stands for,” said David Penrod, 42, a local high school teacher. “People here know the sacrifices being paid by our men and women in uniform.”

Mr. Penrod, who was formerly in the Marine Corps active reserves, attended the ceremony with wife Ana and children Noah, 4, and Eden, 20 months.

“It captures your imagination,” he said, gazing at the tree. “The reality of what’s going on in the world is making people understand what Christmas is all about. It’s a reminder of what’s important.”

Mrs. LaMon, who had double mastectomies to combat breast cancer, said she misses her husband greatly. “It’s remarkable people have all been wishing us well,” she said.

Sgt. LaMon is expected to come home for Thanksgiving, then leave for at least another two months. He is one of 25 local soldiers with the 54th Field Artillery Brigade, which deployed in March.

At the ceremony, the couple’s daughters, Jordan Elizabeth, 11, and Brittney Ann, 9, presented the handcrafted ornament.

Residents and schoolchildren from each town or city the tree visits present their own handcrafted ornament.

In the end, the tree will be decorated with nearly 4,500 ornaments.

The spruce was cut from Highland County’s George Washington National Forest. Cries of “Whoa,” “Awesome” and “Holy cow” were heard from the children as they got a peek inside the tent’s windows.

Hampton was one of 33 communities the tree is expected to visit.

Families crowded the makeshift stage to view the Virginia-themed ornaments and gathered around a pinochle-type table, where they got free hot cocoa. Many expressed pride in knowing that one of Virginia’s own will stand on the front lawn of the U.S. Capitol during the holiday season.

“These are very trying times for the country,” said 1st Sgt. Mary Rauchfuss, a 43-year-old Newport News native who plays with the Army band. “This is a unifying thing, regardless of which side of the aisle you are on.”

Sharon Moran, 40, of Yorktown, marveled at the tree’s grandeur. “I’ve never seen one that big that’s not planted in the ground,” she said.

The importance of the event did not escape Jennifer Reed, 27, of Newport News.

“It helps bring people out and helps them be a part of what’s going on in the world,” she said. “I know a lot of people over there. I pray every day they come home safely.”

The theme for this year’s holiday tree is “From Virginia — Birthplace of Presidents.” Eight U.S. presidents have been from Virginia.

The red spruce already has visited Winchester, Leesburg, Culpeper, King George County, Westmoreland County, Glen Allen, Petersburg, Charles City County, Onancock, Cape Charles, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Suffolk, Emporia, South Boston, Chatham, Damascus and Smith County.

It is expected to stop at 14 other cities and towns, including Manassas, Alexandria and Vienna.

U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, will light the tree during a ceremony Dec. 9.

“In December, it will be Virginia’s turn to shine at our nation’s capital,” said state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican who is the honorary chairman of the state’s holiday tree celebration.

Vera Dickerson, an artist from Roanoke who co-founded the Studio School, captured the spruce in its natural setting in a painting, which will be displayed at the tree-lighting ceremony. The painting will later be housed in Richmond.

NASCAR driver Ward Burton of Halifax is the celebrity chairman of the celebration.

Christmas tree growers in Virginia also donated some 70 smaller trees that will stand in the House and Senate office buildings, organizers said.

The Capitol Holiday Tree is not the National Holiday Tree, a balsam fir that has stood in President’s Park across from the White House for more than 80 years. President Bush will light that tree next month in a separate ceremony.

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