By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
The nonprofit organization Operation Homefront of Texas' Operation Jolly Holly kicked into high gear Wednesday afternoon, when it delivered one very large Christmas present to a Fort Hood solider in need and his family.
Sgt. Steven Watson, 30, Charlie Company, 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, appeared confused when Jolly Holly volunteers began to load the toys and food he'd also received during the event at the Shilo Inn into a black 2005 Volvo SUV.
It was only after several volunteers insisted that the car was now his that he believed it, he said.
"They told us that they'd located a vehicle, but other things had to happen (before we could have it)," he said. "I was kind of thinking about it, but I didn't want to assume."
His wife, Diane Watson, 32, said she was shocked.
"I had no idea that was going to happen."
In addition to the Watsons' car, Operation Homefront of Texas gave away 16,000 toys and 450 food baskets to other Fort Hood families during its fourth annual Operation Jolly Holly event in Killeen.
Watson received the day's biggest gift due to the special needs of two of his three small children and their inability to fit into the family's only car, which Mrs. Watson called unreliable at best.
"'Please start, please start,'" she said, imitating her constant conversations with the vehicle.
Watson, who has been deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan and re-enlisted last year after a difficult 18-month period as a civilian, said getting the new car was a great way to kick off the holidays and set a positive tone for the next year.
"We can go out as a family now," he said, explaining that he and his wife used to have to take turns shuttling their children to therapy sessions for their autism or to doctors' appointments.
Operation Homefront of Texas president Jennifer Cernoch said the event was a way to honor the sacrifices of military families, ahead of the holidays.
"We want to make this holiday season a little more special for so many military children who, on Christmas Day, will be without a parent who is fighting for our freedom overseas. We can do thing because of the generosity of so many individuals and businesses around the Fort Hood area."
Operation Homefront partnered with Dollar Tree stores throughout Texas to collect donations of toys. Beam Global Spirits & Wine donated hundreds of food baskets to military families through its Holiday Meals for Military Families program, and American Shipping & Logistics Group donated the car. Tens of other local businesses, including Killeen Walmart, also pitched in.
Like its fellow chapters across the country, Operation Homefront of Texas, based in San Antonio, offers emergency financial assistance to junior enlisted soldiers and their families. During Operation Jolly Holly, the organization tries to prioritize wounded warriors and families with deployed loved ones, but also operates on a "first-come, first served" basis, Cernoch said.
As many as 1,000 Fort Hood families could have qualified this year, she said. Other families are on the waiting list for vehicles.
Shopping for toys for her 2-year-old son, Spc. Sandra Rynes, 297th Inland Cargo Transfer Company, 13th Sustainment Command, grew emotional while talking about the support she feels from the community this time of year.
"It's actually mind-blowing," she said. "I've never seen anything like this actually. It's amazing, so many people (donating) their time. There's no words to describe it."
Contact Colleen Flaherty at email@example.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.