Sweet Adelines spread Christmas cheer to troops

Chorus of women sings holiday tunes to soldiers in Iraq

Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2007

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The soldier on the line had the sound in his voice of someone awake at 1:30 a.m. in Iraq in the week before Christmas.

The chorus of women had the sound in their voices of people trying hard to make that situation seem a bit more bearable for a couple of minutes.

Sporting more Christmas sweaters than a PTA holiday cookie swap, the Sweet Adelines crowded a back room at the Fairbanks police station on Sunday afternoon to dial up Task Force 49.

"This is the Fairbanks Frontier Chapter of the Sweet Adelines calling to deliver a singing Christmas card," said Tara Tippett, night watch commander for the Fairbanks Police Department and member of the singing group. "Is this the right number?"

The soldier on the line, after an off-putting delay familiar to anyone who regularly makes international calls, finally said, yes, the number was correct.

The 25 or so women started singing in that well-known a cappella barbershop style, each woman bouncing at the knees and waving her arms in a jazzy, standstill dance for an audience that could not see them. Myrna McGhie, membership team leader for the chorus, said the singers must be animated, even if no one is watching.

"If you don't feel 'up,' you don't sing that way," she said.

Every year at this time the Sweet Adelines sell "singing Christmas cards" to raise money for their organization. But this year and this time they sang for free.

They couldn't get the pieces together in time for last Christmas, but tried again this year, spending the past month calling people on post, trying to figure out the best way to set up a conference call with soldiers in a war zone.

Working with a U.S. Army chaplain, she managed to set up two long-distance concerts. They plan to sing for a group of Fort Richardson soldiers on Thursday.

McGhie said the gigs seemed like something her group could do to help. After all, singing for the troops goes back decades. Just think of these women as Bob Hope in appliqué and comfortable shoes, stuck in Alaska, instead of traveling with the United Service Organizations overseas.

"We would sing for every one of those guys if we could," McGhie said.

Silence followed the first song for Task Force 49, and Patti Gallagher, musical director for the chorus, asked the soldier on the line, "Did you hear that all right?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

"We have more if you have time to listen," Gallagher said. "Do you have time?"

"Yes. We have time," the soldier said.

The women went into a medley of Christmas songs as Gallagher, wearing a fuzzy red sweater and matching socks while conducting the choir, fluttered her arms about in a style somewhere between a marching-band baton twirler and a tai chi instructor.

"Can we ask you how many there are?" Gallagher said after songs.

"Like 12 of us, ma'am," the soldier said.

"We just love every one of you," Gallagher said.

Task Force 49 deployed to Iraq from Fort Wainwright in November, after a rushed two-month training course intended to take a year.

The U.S. Army established the Task Force two years ago, and many of the soldiers in the aviation unit have already been to Iraq before. The unit lost two soldiers in August when a Chinook helicopter crashed during a maintenance flight near Fallujah.

In the current nine-month mission, the 120 troops provide support for ground troops stationed in the area.

After the next song, the soldiers on the line began clapping, their applause sounding like static after traveling through thousands of miles of telephone line.

"Aww. Thank you," McGhie said. "That's so sweet. I hope you have a good Christmas. What's the weather like there?"

"Hey, what's the weather like?" the soldier yelled to someone. A few seconds later, he came back to the phone. "About 45," he said.

"Oh," McGhie said. "We'll we've got about negative 10 or 20."

The women ended their concert with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

"Merry Christmas to all of you," the women told the soldiers before getting off the line.

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