Holiday homecoming: Troops' return nearly funded
A fundraising effort to bring Oklahoma's 2,600 Army National Guard troops home for the holidays is within a hair of reaching its goal, officials said Wednesday.
David Kellerman, state adjutant for the American Legion, which is coordinating the effort, said the last of the donations -- about $14,000 -- is expected to be collected by Thursday.
Meanwhile, officials are moving forward with plans to return the troops from Fort Bliss, Texas, near El Paso, where they have been undergoing training for the last six weeks in preparation for a mission in Iraq.
As it stands now, those troops will be arriving in Tulsa, McAlester and Oklahoma City early Dec. 23. All the troops are scheduled to leave to return to Texas on Jan. 2.
Since it was announced nearly four weeks ago, "Operation Holiday Homecoming" has drawn support from across the state.
Originally, the plan was to raise $600,000 -- enough to rent 60 buses and pay for fuel and food for the troops' trip to Oklahoma for the holidays and their return to Fort Bliss
As it turned out, however, that amount of money was not needed, because much more than just cash was raised.
Thirty-four of the buses needed for the trips -- more than half -- were donated, as was the fuel and food.
J.D. Smith, a spokesman for the American Legion in northeastern Oklahoma, said the Choctaw Nation donated 14 of its buses, the Creek Nation donated one bus, and the Chickasaw Nation donated nine buses.
He said other bus donations came from Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, with four; Skiatook Public Schools, with three; and Time Lines, an Oklahoma City chartered-bus firm, with three.
The rest of the buses needed will have to be rented, and the American Legion has collected $210,000 in donations for that expense, while it awaits the $14,000 in outstanding contributions to complete the fundraising.
Smith said Oklahoma City-based Love's Travel Stops and Country Stores is donating the fuel for the 60 buses.
"That's four bus trips; there and back two times," he said, pointing out that El Paso is more than 900 miles from Tulsa.
He said the food is being donated by DHS LLC, a Killeen, Texas, company. The firm supplies equipment to the Oklahoma National Guard.
The donated food is being provided for the return trip to Texas. Fort Bliss is preparing the meals for the troops' trip to the Sooner State.
Kellerman said any money left over from the fundraising will be distributed to needy families of the troops while they are deployed.
Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade is expected to ship out to Iraq in January. Troops should start returning home by September.
This is the largest deployment of the brigade since the Korean War.
Kellerman praised the response to the fundraising, calling it "awesome."
"It's been a long few weeks, but Oklahomans have been good about stepping up" to the call for donations, he said.
More praise came from Gov. Brad Henry.
"When we kicked off this effort last month, I said failure was not an option, and I have no doubt Oklahomans will make Operation Holiday Homecoming a success."
"This is going to be a wonderful Christmas gift for Guard members and their families," Henry said.