By Amanda Kim Stairrett – Fort Hood Herald
It looked like Christmas morning in the Armstrong living room the eve before Thanksgiving.
Shreds of wrapping paper littered the floor. Opened toy boxes lay discarded, the prizes inside on the couch, chair and tabletops.
Even though dad was leaving soon for Afghanistan, the four Armstrong children — 8-year-old Tyler, 6-year-old Austin, 4-year-old Kaiden and 2-year-old Olivia — were smiling as they played with their new toys last Wednesday night.
Santa and Wish For Our Heroes, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for service members and their families, delivered Christmas early to the Armstrong family while dad, Spc. Steven Armstrong, was at home to help them celebrate. Armstrong, a track vehicle mechanic in the 87th Engineer Company, 8th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, is set to deploy to Afghanistan before Christmas.
Armstrong recently moved to the engineer unit from a chemical company, with which he was deployed from December 2007 to March 2009, and said he wasn’t expecting the upcoming deployment. He and his wife, Cynthia, weren’t financially prepared for the separation and the upcoming holiday season, and feared that their children would not only have a Christmas without dad, but a Christmas without presents.
That’s where Wish For Our Heroes stepped in. The organization was created by a former engineer officer, Jeff Wells, to help.
A lot of military aid organizations focus on severely wounded soldiers, Wells said last month, and Wish For Our Heroesis a way to focus on a wider variety of those who may have slipped through the cracks or need a bit of help.
Past wishes granted include sending a young girl and her mother to visit relatives in Germany, paying moving expenses for a Fort Hood family forced out of their rental home and providing honeymoons for couples parted by deployments.
Wells served as a platoon leader at Fort Hood and in Iraq and saw firsthand the struggles Army families endured, he said. Some of those challenges could lead to bigger issues like divorce and suicide down the road. Wells’ goal with Wish For Our Heroes was to alleviate stress before problems got out of hand, he said.
Wells contacted Santa and he agreed to make a special, pre-Christmas appearance for the Armstrongs on the eve of Thanksgiving, and the family celebrated their Christmas day on Thanksgiving day.
After handing out some presents Wednesday night, Santa told the four children he would keep an eye on them while their father was gone.
“Are you going to be good for mom so Santa can visit you next year,” he asked.
Each child received at least seven to eight presents, said Bo Brister, a local resident and Wish For Our Heroes board member. They opened a few Wednesday night and saved the rest for their Christmas morning.
The day a family celebrates a holiday isn’t so important. It’s more about getting everyone together, Cynthia said. She knew of several military families who will be parted during Christmas and decided to celebrate on Thanksgiving instead.
The last deployment was rough, Cynthia said, and this one looked to be difficult, too, as she and Steven started to plan. She submitted her family’s wish on the organization’s website and hoped for the best.
She expected, if selected, a few presents each for the children from their wish lists. She never thought they’d get everything they wanted.
“One little wish turned into a dream come true for everyone,” she said.
Christmas would not have been possible without the organization, she added later.
It’s hard being away from family during a deployment, Steven said, but celebrating Christmas with his high school sweetheart and children will make the upcoming one easier.
He was surprised to find out about the organization and said it was good for him and his family to see support like that from strangers.
Steven will spend as much time possible with his family in the coming weeks, a big part of preparing for a deployment, he said. It was important to do it now because once he deployed, he couldn’t do anything about the separation, he said.
“(You’ve) just got your memories and thoughts,” Steven added.
After examining his new toys — which included a Nerf gun and a light-up moon — Austin talked about Christmas and his family. Getting a visit from Santa was cool and awesome, he said.
Santa asked the 6-year-old why dad was leaving, to which he replied: “He gots to go to work early to fight the bad guys.”
Getting Santa to visit the Armstrong family was Wish For Our Heroes’ 230th wish since it began granting last year, according to information from the organization. Wish For Our Heroes celebrated its 100th wish during an Oct. 28 visit to Kiara Brewster, the 7-year-old daughter of a deployed 1st Cavalry Division soldier, at Killeen’s Timber Ridge Elementary School.