"The trees are here! The trees are here!"
Retired Army Command Sgt. Major Marvin Hill will never forget those words, exclaimed by Army Gen. David Petraeus' secretary as she burst into his office in Afghanistan, where he was serving as the command sergeant major for international security assistant forces.
'What trees?' he thought.
"I go outside, and there's a truck and a gentleman unloading Christmas trees," Hill recalled. "Low and behold, it was Trees for Troops."
Hill now runs the Trees for Troops project for FedEx, a partnership with the nonprofit Christmas SPIRIT Foundation that distributes thousands of free Christmas trees to troops around the globe each year, each with a personalized note attached.
Nationwide, nearly 80 military bases have received more than 15,000 trees for distribution this week and next, though no trees will be distributed internationally this year due to the pandemic and travel restrictions. Those trees include 500 delivered to Fort Carson for distribution this weekend.
Hill says he'll never forget the first tree he received from the program, in 2008 when the Army moved him to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., just days before Christmas.
He and his wife were still waiting on their household goods.
"The Army decided to move me at the most wonderful time of the year," he said. "My bride, she still deserved a Christmas.
"Receiving a tree and behind able to just have remnants of Christmas in somewhat of an empty set of quarters, it meant the world."
And then, two years later, there were the trees that appeared in the middle of the desert, seemingly miraculously.
"It was extraordinary," Hill recalled. "I guess I was so focused on the mission and the fight in front of us, and then to be surprised with this truck rolling up with all of these Christmas trees with with messages on them saying, 'Merry Christmas,' and, 'Hurry home,' — it was just tremendous."
Hill worked with other command sergeants major that year to transport the trees via trucks and Chinooks to combat outposts manned by soldiers and Marines.
"I call those combat outposts the edge of the Earth — they are literally out there," he said, recalling troops who would turn string, Tabasco sauce bottles from meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) and CDs into makeshift garland to decorate the trees they received.
"You should have seen the look on these soldiers' and their leaders' faces. They were hurrying to start setting them up and provide decorations.
"It's just a touch of home, a reminder of the goodness from the donations that were made to provide those trees."
It's not too late to donate, at christmasspiritfoundation.org/donate, Hill said, adding that some trees will be distributed to additional troops next weekend.
"I would say dig deep and think about that service member out there doing our nation's bidding, and their families, and how important it is that they have some sense of normalcy throughout this abnormal year. It's just the right thing to do."
"I believe that Christmas starts with a tree," he added. "You've gotta have a tree."