Capitol Tree volunteers return to Vermont Veterans' Home

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BENNINGTON — Volunteers who 10 years ago helped transport the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree from Bennington to Washington D.C. gathered at the Vermont Veterans Home, one of the tree's last stops before heading south, to reminisce on the event and to donate a new Christmas tree to the home.

In 2007, when a Vermont tree was chosen to be displayed at the U.S. Capitol for the first time since 1994, the Tree Committee (a joint effort between the Bennington Chamber of Commerce and the Green Mountain National Forest) and then-Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie decided to do something special. The 22-truck convoy, including 15 antique Mack trucks from the Green Mountain Bulldawg Chapter of the Antique Truck Club of America, was used to carry the 44-year-old, 55-foot tree, which was harvested from the Green Mountain National Forest in Somerset, along with 80 smaller companion trees to Washington, but along the way they decided they would stop at eight veterans homes and hospitals to pay tribute to America's veterans.

The 11-foot tree that was set up on the front porch of the Veterans Home Monday morning was a bit smaller than the 2007 tree. It was cut on Monday morning at the Arlington home of Don Keelan, who Veterans Home Director of Marketing Gary Yelle said has donated Christmas trees to the home for many years. In 2014, a tree from Keelan's property was selected to be the State Christmas Tree. Keelan was among those who delivered the tree to Washington 10 years ago, and wrote about his experiences in a column with the Banner.

"To see young adults, several with more than one limb missing, engage us in conversations, with their spouses and children present, was a scene that was most difficult to witness," he said. "And as it turned out, the wounded warriors saw this on the faces of their Vermont visitors. The soldiers were missing limbs, but clearly not missing was their spirit. They told us with their smiles and greetings how grateful they were that we had come with ornaments and gift bags and cards, made by children of Vermont. Most of the wounded told their Vermont visitors that some day, when they were healed, they hoped that they would rejoin their units. The tears of those visiting flowed freely and openly, except for one, 'Smokey Bear.' His tears were not seen; they were hidden behind his mask. Nevertheless, they were there, as they were at each of the seven other veterans' facilities he had visited.

"For all of us who took part on this journey," he concluded, "our tears were tears of thanks for those who had served our country."

Vermont Christmas trees have been chosen to grace the Capitol Building in 1923, 1967, 1980, 1982, 1994, and 2007.

Veterans Home Chief Operating Officer Col. Al Faxon said the annual Christmas tree donation means a lot to staff and residents alike, and is the only live tree permitted in the facility. Inside, he said, his staff has already begun to decorate the halls for the holidays. The Veterans Home's official tree-lighting ceremony will be held next Wednesday, Dec. 6, at 5:30 p.m.

Dave Zsido, who is the president of the Green Mountain Bulldawg chapter and was instrumental in planning the trip, was among those at the Veterans Home on Monday. In a message to all veterans, he reminded them, "You are not forgotten." Zsido also presented the home with a lockbox containing 150 "challenge coins" that will be presented to residents and staff at the home.

Others who participated in the 2007 and were present on Monday were Kevin and Lindy Lynch, Patty Surdam, state Rep. Mary Morrissey, Don Miller, Jeff White, Frank Thomson, Perry and Betty Young, and Andrea Chase. The journey of the tree was covered extensively in the Banner, through the eyes of reporters, Keelan, and "Capitol Tree Blogger" Lisa Byer.

"I realized how many different groups of people had come together to deliver a tree to Washington, and as I watched the group disperse knew it became so much more than that," wrote Byer. "Together, they created an amazing journey in which everyone had a role and an importance in what, for many, is a once in a lifetime experience. The work of each of these groups must be recognized and commended. The result of what was accomplished was nothing short of amazing."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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