RANCHO SANTA FE — The holidays are over and most everyone has eased back into their everyday lives. But to the active military, some who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their everyday lives are far from routine. Still, some at least have a bright spot to remember, the visit by St. Nick 1, filled with representatives from Operation Christmas Spirit: Believe in Santa, who distributed gifts and support to them while they are far away from home. They were not only armed with gifts, they brought first run movies and live entertainment for the troops.
It was the fifth year for the Christmas trip, sponsored by the Spirit of Liberty Foundation.
Rancho Santa Fe resident Gary Bobileff, a private pilot, arranged for air transport around the country until they left the U.S. and needed to take a commercial airline. He got the FAA to issue him call sign St. Nick 1.
“That is not normally done unless it is an extraordinary event of some kind,” he said.
The group left on Dec. 13, flying to San Antonio where they visited patients at Brooke Army Hospital.
“These were mainly kids of the warriors, most of which were terminal with cancer, leukemia or other kinds of illnesses. There was not a lot of hope for them,” he said.
Then on the same day they flew on to Washington, D.C., to visit wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
“We saw a lot of men and women as well who did not have arms or legs,” he said.
“Incredibly, you visit these troops in the hospital and they said 22 percent of everyone who comes in wants to get their prosthetic and go back. That is astounding to me. I’m not sure I would be sitting there saying, ‘I can’t wait to go back and fight.’ I was so enlightened and my eyes were so opened.”
He said one of the young men he saw was so badly injured that it was gut wrenching.
“I went into the next room and cried my eyes out,” he said.
On Dec. 15 they flew from New York to Kuwait City where they were met by Secret Service agents and taken to Base Camp A.J. at about 10 p.m. They were pointed toward barracks and told to sleep for a few hours because at 2:30 a.m. they were being transported to Command Headquarters in Iraq.
Once at Camp Speicher outside Baghdad, they spent two and a half days visiting and living with the troops, sleeping in the barracks and eating their meals with them, he said.
Bobileff said he found the troops to be “amazing people.”
The main topic of conversation and concern of the troops is what will happen to Iraq when American forces pull out in 2011, he said.
They hope what has been done by American troops will stand, but that is the big question, whether or not it’s going to happen, he said. They worry that the remaining powers will not be able to work together to run the government.
“American troops are saying we are not sure this is going to work out. They hope it does. They are optimistic and hopeful for a peaceful exit,” Bobileff said.
Anytime the visitors were out in the open, they were required to wear protective vests and helmets. The 14-hour trip in a lumbering C-130 was not exactly flying in first class. There are no individual seats.
The trip was organized by Richard Rovesk, founder of the Spirit of Liberty Foundation headquartered in Solana Beach.
“He orchestrated the whole trip,” Bobileff said. “He master planned the whole thing. He gets all the credit spending countless hours preparing.”
Bobileff said they all have been invited back, but next year to Afghanistan. He is not sure he wants to travel to such a hot spot of hostilities.
“It makes you appreciate and thank the Lord. I’ve got my arms. I’ve got my legs, I’m vertical,” he said.