Help from an Elf
A volunteer crew from Elf Entertainment decorates the North Huntingdon home of a Lepley family in a contest that chose the families of two soldiers stationed in Iraq for free holiday decorations.
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For McKeesport resident Colleen Wells, Christmas will be bittersweet this year -- but a north suburban "elf" will be making it a little sweeter for the military family.
She'll see her husband, Spc. Robert C. Wells for the first time since September, when he was deployed for training in Fort Polk, La.
But she'll have to brace for his Jan. 2 departure to Iraq for his second tour of duty. She won't see him again for at least nine months and he anticipates another 18-month deployment in 2010.
Wednesday marked their fifth anniversary, which they spent apart, like nearly two of their five years of marriage.
But they've managed to spend every Christmas together, except for one, and they've maintained a tradition of picking out a Christmas ornament for their tree every year since they met and moved in together in 1997. In 2004, when Spc. Wells spent Christmas in Iraq, he and his wife agreed on an ornament they found online: Snoopy, a character in the "Peanuts" comic strip.
Maury Frankel, the owner of Richland-based ELF Entertainment, which has the local franchise for the national decorating company Christmas Decor, read about Mrs. Wells and her ornament tradition when she submitted an application to win a Christmas decorating package through Christmas Decor's Decorated Soldier program. The group provides free Christmas decorations for military families.
Mrs. Wells' application and that of another family, the Lepleys, of North Huntingdon, were chosen to receive exterior decorating packages that usually cost around $1,300, with all the costs covered by Mr. Frankel. Jennifer Lepley and her infant daughter are enjoying the new decorations until her husband comes home.
"We wanted [them] just to come home and see their house all decorated and lit up," Mr. Frankel said. "It was something we felt needed [to be] done and we were just thrilled that we were able to do it."
At the Wells' modest house on Bowman Avenue in McKeesport, strands of white lights wrap the posts on the front porch, and red lights illuminate the shrubbery in the front yard. Pine boughs decorate the fencing on the porch, and a wreath with a red bow crowns the house's facade.
Mrs. Wells hasn't told her husband about the decorations, and she's excited to see his reaction when he comes home. The pair moved into the house just last year, so this is the first year Mrs. Wells has been able to decorate.
Though she's happy he's coming home, she's realistic about how tough the following nine months are going to be.
"I don't sleep ... knowing that he's not home," she said. "I'm really scared of what's to come."
During his first tour of Iraq, they communicated via Yahoo! Messenger, but on occasion, he would be cut off abruptly. His post with the military police patrolling the Baghdad International Airport could be very dangerous.
"It would be a little scary because he would lose power ... and I would wonder, 'Did a mortar hit?' " she said.
To help both of them cope, she sends him weekly care packages with beef jerky, Gatorade, magazines and a card for every day, telling him how much she misses him and giving him some of the mundane details of her daily life, like when the cat got sick, or when she ran into a friend at the grocery store.
She's also the co-chair of the Family Readiness Group, a local organization that provides support for military families. It keeps her busy and gives her the opportunity to speak to military spouses, counseling on how to communicate with loved ones overseas.
Though it's difficult, she admits she conceals some of her concerns because she wants him to stay focused.
"If their head is not focused on a task, they could not only hurt themselves, but they could hurt the people around them. So you really have to watch what you say," she said.
Around Dec. 22, she'll make the trip across the state to where he'll land near Harrisburg, to pick him up and drive him back to their home in McKeesport.
During the 10 or 11 days they'll spend together, Mrs. Wells said they'll be sure to make the time to pick out another ornament.
First Published December 14, 2008 12:00 am