Hundreds of Utah's citizen soldiers who were called up for Operation Desert Shield but still stationed in the United States are enjoying Christmas at home -some of them thanks to the generosity of private donations.
The military provides transportation for official duty, but won't help with personal travel expense. So a few Army Reservists given leave were able to return to Utah only because their fellow soldiers passed the hat and helped them buy bus tickets.A larger group of the Utah National Guard's 144th Evacuation Hospital thought they would be spending the holiday at Fort Carson, Colo., near Colorado Springs, because they couldn't afford the trip home either. But the Utah Automobile Dealers Association donated $2,500 so they could charter a bus.
The guardsmen and women of the 144th are temporarily stationed at Fort Carson awaiting transfer to the Persian Gulf. They were given a choice of four-day leave periods, from Dec. 19 to 23 or from Dec. 22-26. About 75 percent were expected to take advantage of the leave and return home for Christmas.
"They are back," the guard's Maj. Bob Nelson said Monday. "They arrived at 1:45 a.m. yesterday morning."
Only one bus was required for all the Guard members who had not already bought airline tickets or rental cars, and wanted to return to Utah for the holidays. "We anticipate that everybody who wants to be home is home," Nelson said.
Around midday on Dec. 26, the bus will leave for the return trip, arriving in Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, 10 to 12 hours later.
"Feels really good," said Sgt. Joseph "Scott" Done, relaxing at home in Layton after his long bus ride from Fort Carson. "I'm just glad the money was donated to help some of us come back.
"I think if that hadn't been done, I probably would have had to stay back in Fort Carson . . . I was planning on not being able to come back, mainly because right now finances are really tight for my family."
Done and his wife, Michelle, are the parents of daughters, who range in age from 3 months to 4 years. He and Michelle talked it over and decided that, as sad as it would be, he would have to stay at the bleak Colorado fort over the Christmas break.
Fort Carson is barren and snowy. It's cold - Done estimates it at 20 degrees below the weather in northern Utah.
Then came the donation from the automobile association.
"It's a real blessing that it came about," said Done, who is a registered nurse. The whole family is excited.
A communications section chief, a sergeant named Stewart who did not want the Deseret News to use his last name, was also on the chartered bus from Fort Carson. He said the trip home was a pleasant surprise.
After the unit was notified it was to be activated, it didn't have much time to spend with family members, he said. "This gives us a little time to take care of things and write Christmas cards."
Some of the seats in the bus were empty on the trip to Utah. But the sergeant expects more will be taking it back to Fort Carson than were in it on Sunday. Many soldiers who flew in to Salt Lake City will take the bus to Colorado because they "couldn't afford the flight back," he said.
Sgt. 1st Class Lenny Michaelsen, a Salt Lake area resident who is a member of the Army Reserve's 419th Transportation Company, said three of the company's members couldn't afford the trip back to Utah for Christmas leave. So their fellow soldiers passed the hat and got enough money for their bus tickets.
One man in headquarters, where he serves, couldn't afford the journey. "The headquarters platoon rounded up enough money to get him a bus ticket," he said.
Two others in the unit were in the same fix, and their fellow soldiers helped them out. "Nobody was stuck in Fort Lewis because of all the collections we took up."
The 419th was activated on Nov. 17 and left Utah the following Monday for training at Fort Lewis. Its trucks have been loaded aboard a ship for a destination somewhere in the Middle East - nobody will say where, officially. All Michaelsen will say is, "That's sailing now."
The entire company was given a seven-day leave for Christmas. When the leave is over on Dec. 28 "we'll go back, do some more training." Later the unit will fly to Southwest Asia.
Asked how he feels to be home for Christmas with his wife and their three children, ages 9, 13 and 16, Michaelsen said, "Fantastic." The children are very excited, he said.
Bob Carleson, chairman of the Utah Automobile Dealers Association, said he heard a radio report about the fact that some of the soldiers of the 144th couldn't come home for Christmas because they could not afford the transportation cost. "That seemed really sad," he said.
The Deseret News earlier had told Utahns about the unit being granted leave and how kind-hearted residents could help bring home unit members who had made many financial sacrifices with the call-up and might not be able to take advantage of the leave.
Carleson telephoned two of the other board members of the association, and they decided to donate $2,500 to charter the bus. The money came from a reserve account the group maintains.
"They might not be back in this neck of the woods for quite a while," Carleson added. He expressed his satisfaction for the association's part in bringing them home for the holidays: "It's great fun," he said.