By Don Bolding

Killeen Daily Herald

The men in Kristy Gnau's and Mona Hernandez's lives were constantly on their minds during the Christmas season, since both soldiers were only a couple of months into 15-month deployments to Iraq, and Gnau and Hernandez were left behind to work at Killeen's Outback Steakhouse.

The employee holiday party was coming up the week before Christmas while the two young ladies and their boss, Bill White, were thinking of what they could do for their people overseas.

"We usually do a gift exchange," White said, "but these little gifts usually wind up in people's closets forever. So Kristy and Mona got to thinking, 'Why don't we do something for the guys over there?' And they wanted to take the money that would have gone for gifts and buy some things for them. And everybody thought it was a great idea."

Hernandez' boyfriend is Spc. Justin Burkett of the 36th Engineering Brigade, and Gnau's husband is Sgt. Steven Gnau of the 297th Transportation Company of the 13th Sustainment Brigade, which is also Outback's adopted unit.

The women asked their men what they should send and were told the units could use sports equipment, board games and other recreational equipment of their own so they wouldn't have to wait in line with soldiers from other units to get sports equipment issued to them.

Hernandez is a server, and Gnau "does a little of everything," she said. "Serving, bartending, whatever needs doing." They were joined by a third project cheerleader, kitchen worker Lee Singletary, and raised $501 for a shopping spree. They thought up little contests behind the bar and in the kitchen. They had raised most of the money by the time of the Christmas party, but they kept on collecting.

They had no particular goal but “just got as much as we could,” Hernandez said. “It was more than we thought we’d get.”

“We would have taken a thousand,” White said. “Where that one dollar over $500 came from, I don’t know, but it was a nice touch.”

They went on a shopping spree and got two of everything to make the packages exactly equal.

“They know it’s coming, but they don’t know how much,” Gnau said.

The gifts will be shipped Monday. Hernandez said she felt she was doing her part not only for her boyfriend but also for his mission.

It’s not the local Outback’s first effort on behalf of the troops. A few months ago, White joined a corporate program to send the restaurant group’s personnel to prepare Outback meals in mobile kitchens for soldiers in Iraq. He said the experience was one of the highlights of his life.

“I’m proud of our people,” he said. “It took a lot of driving force to collect all that money, a lot of effort to keep it on everyone’s mind.

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