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Couple pays it forward with gift drive

Posted: November 23, 2012 - 12:05am

ANCHORAGE — Rich and Tonya Watson are looking for a few good gifts. The couple’s non-profit enterprise, Christmas for Heroes, is collecting Christmas presents for wounded soldiers and their families attached to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

The holidays can be particularly difficult for injured military personnel, the Watsons say — and they speak from experience.

Rich, a 1993 graduate of Service High School in Anchorage, was seriously wounded in Iraq in 2007.

“A grenade launcher blew up behind me in a crossfire,” he said.

He suffered traumatic brain injuries and was sent back to Fort Lewis, Wash., the home base of his outfit, the 2nd Infantry Division, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Tonya, who had been working as a substitute teacher and nurse’s assistant, quit work to take care of him.

“Most of his appointments were at the Seattle Veterans Administration Hospital because the military hospital on base was overloaded with other wounded,” she said.

The cost of driving him back and forth to Seattle three or four times a week, the loss of her paycheck and the end of the additional pay he received while in a combat zone combined to create what Tonya described as “a financial disaster.”

It looked like the Watsons and their three children would miss out on Christmas.

“We didn’t have anything,” Rich said. “We didn’t have a tree. We were thinking of skipping a car payment to buy a few presents.”

Then a Seattle law firm stepped in to help.

“To this day we still don’t know the name of the firm,” said Tonya. “But they gave us the Christmas we would have been missing if not for them.”

Other groups helped the Watsons buy food and pay bills. “After that, we wanted to find a way to show our gratitude and pay it forward,” she said.

The couple formed their own nonprofit organization, the OIF/OEF Aid Group, of which Christmas for Heroes is a spin-off. The initials stand for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Last year they set up donation centers around town to collect donations for two families of wounded soldiers with the Warriors Transition Battalion at JBER, one couple with five children and a single mom.

“Christmas often gets overlooked when a soldier is wounded,” said Tonya. “It’s just the reality. Dad or Mom are hurt and there are a lot of needs that go unmet in order to take care of them.”

The 2011 drive went well enough that this year they upped the ante.“We’ve adopted 22 families and have been told that the number could grow due to the high number of inured soldiers who just returned from Afghanistan,” Tonya said.

The Watsons have posted a “wish list” of items on their website, christmas4heroes.org.

Families on the list are designated by number to protect their privacy. They range from households with several children (ages are given) to couples, single parents, and single male and female soldiers. Family 8 has three girls who all want “princess stuff” — and one boy, age 5, more interested in “The Avengers” characters. Family 16 is a husband and wife both looking for fishing gear. Family 15 is a single male who would like books and an electronic book reader.

The husband in Family 6 is hoping for service dog training.

The 22 families represent less than a quarter of the Wounded Warrior Battalion at JBER, Air Force and Army personnel who have been wounded but remain on duty or in the National Guard.

All presents will be given to the recipients at a holiday party on Dec. 12.

The couple met online while he was on deployment in 2003. When he returned to the states, he offered to fly her to Seattle. He met her at the airport and proposed on the spot, Tonya said. “And we’ve been together ever since.”

But it hasn’t been easy. They originally moved to her hometown, Gun Barrel City, Texas, so that they could call on her parents in the case of an emergency while, they hoped, Richard’s condition improved.

Instead, it got worse. Mini-strokes, degenerative brain disease, sleep problems, early onset Parkinson’s Disease and inexplicable maladies piled up.

Two years ago he received a terminal diagnosis.

“The doctor told me I had four years to go before I became a complete vegetable,” he said.

They decided to move to his home town, Anchorage.

“I wanted to be here in Alaska and let my kids experience it,” Rich said.

Meanwhile, he’s pushing himself to stay active and keep his mind in shape. He just completed a course in grant writing at Alaska Pacific University.

“We want to keep this going, even when we’re not in town anymore,” he said.

That will be soon. Shortly after the party for this year’s families, the Watsons will move back to Seattle where Tonya is due to receive a kidney transplant.

“Medical reasons are forcing us to leave again,” she said, “for my benefit this time.”

If all goes well, Rich expects to be back in Alaska next summer, looking into building a house on land the family owns on the Kenai Peninsula among other things. He’s also looking into ways to take the charity national.

“I’ve always been a volunteer,” he said. “I volunteered for service and paid a heavy price. I was deployed twice in Iraq and once in Kosovo and got hurt each time. But others paid the ultimate price.”

His old unit is in Afghanistan right now and has taken serious casualties, he said. “I owe it to them.”

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