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Drivers send taste of home to soldiers

Cheer - With her son spending Christmas in Iraq, Konnie Dodge rallies her own troops to mail goodies
by: Chase Allgood, Konnie Dodge and Michelle Tindle wrapped and sent holiday gifts to soldiers in Iraq.

Earlier this month, while the Nehalem River washed over her hometown of Vernonia, Konnie Dodge drove her school bus through the floodwaters of Gales Creek to get kids home from Dilley Elementary School south of Forest Grove.

Three days later, on Dec. 7, Dodge and her fellow drivers at the Mid Columbia Bus Co. were on a different mission, wrapping up a gift drive for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, tying bows on everything from smoked salmon to a decorated Christmas tree.

The seed of the idea for the seasonal care package was planted when Dodge was on the phone with her son, Robert, who is spending his first Christmas away from home stationed in Iraq on his third tour of duty.

The 26-year-old Army sergeant mentioned his hankering for some simple tastes of home: sunflower seeds and elk jerky.

'He told us there are soldiers he's serving with that don't even know what an elk is,' Dodge said.

In October, after the drivers finished up their fifth annual gift drive for children undergoing cancer treatments at Legacy Emanuel Hospital, they got to talking.

'We were in the break room thinking of things our soldiers would love to have, brought up a drive, and decided we should do it,' Dodge said.

One of Dodge's co-workers, Michelle Tindle of Forest Grove, was eager to help. Her partner, Richard Quinteros, has a 21-year-old son, Mariano, in Iraq. Like Robert Dodge, 'Nano,' as he was known at Forest Grove High School, is an Army sergeant in his third tour of duty and will be missing his first Christmas at home.

The gift drive, organized and carried out by 53 Mid Columbia drivers who work in the Forest Grove School District, lasted about three weeks. Employees scrounged up a hodgepodge of contributions, amounting to six crates of two-foot by three-foot boxes filled with DVDs, car magazines and hard candies.

Crossword puzzles and comic books

Adam Hampton contributed a box of crossword puzzle books. Another bus driver's son donated his entire comic book collection.

One of Dodge's favorite surprises is a decorated Christmas tree.

'I found a Christmas tree at a craft store that you can put in a tube,' she said. 'It has ornaments and everything, so we shipped that over to them also,' she said.

Some drivers, who couldn't afford as much, wrote holiday greeting cards for unspecified soldiers.

'With our sentiments, we did what we could,' Dodge said. 'Michelle and I knew these drivers wouldn't let us down. It's a great group of people.'

Yet amid the lightheartedness of the gift drive, Dodge revisited the worries of a mother whose only son continues fighting in combat half a globe away.

'There are things over there I wish I could have kept him from ever having to see,' she said. 'But at the same time, he is going to do his job.'

Their family usually tours the neighborhood around this time of year, looking at festive lighting displays and coming home to chocolate chip cookies.

This year, Dodge said, her son would have to manage with the oatmeal-raisin treats she sent, as the searing heat of his location melts chocolate.

She said she is proud of her son, who joined six years ago and hopes to make a career as a recruiter once his third and final tour ends - a milestone currently slated for July, when he'll have been in Iraq for a full year.

Going to be tough

Dodge said Robert had confided that being away from home during the holiday season is 'going to be tough' on him.

'But you deal with what you've got,' she said. 'And we know we can make it better for them and take a little bit of home over to them.'

At 20, Robert was focused on rabblerousing and merrymaking, according to his mom. After his first tour in Iraq, she said, his demeanor had tempered.

'Before, he was young, full of piss and vinegar,' she said. 'He's not the same boy we sent. When he came back, he was a responsible, mature young man. And he is very proud to serve his country and would never say anything disparaging about what they are doing.'

Dodge knows her son is somewhere in Iraq, but not much more than that.

'He doesn't talk a lot about his job and we don't push him,' Dodge said. 'He has his support system within the military and it's our job to love him no matter what.'

The gift drive was part of that, she said, but it also is part of a larger effort by Mid Columbia drivers to encourage public service.

Richard Quinteros said his son keeps his feelings to himself, but he expects Christmas Day will be tough on everyone, including Nano's 19-year-old sister, Victoria.

"She hasn't said much about it but I know it's going to be hard on her also," he said.

Quinteros said knowing that his son and other soldiers are getting a taste of the holidays from home makes this week a bit easier. "It's really a nice gesture on their part," he said.

And, Dodge added, the drivers have no intention of resting on their good deeds.

'As we were boxing up the boxes for the soldiers,' she said, 'one driver said now we need to start sending blankets and clothing for residents of Vernonia.'