U.S. troops serving overseas this holiday season won't have to pine for a taste of home thanks to Operation Evergreen.

This year's shipment of 180 individually boxed, 6-foot-tall white pine or fir trees – along with ornaments handmade by students – was sent to Kuwait and will be distributed from there to troops, said Amy Galehouse, coordinator of Operation Evergreen and owner of Galehouse Tree Farm in Doylestown.

The trees were inspected and packaged Nov. 14 at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, 8995 E. Main St. in Reynoldsburg.

"The atmosphere on packing day was pretty festive," she said. "People wore Santa hats and the kids had a lot of fun packing ornaments they made. The only grouch is usually me, when I don't get an answer from the UPS driver."

Each tree arrives individually baled at the agriculture department from more than 40 tree farms around Ohio, including Galehouse Tree Farm.

"The trees have to be unbaled and inspected, then baled again to fit into a 12-by-12-by-84-inch box with the ornaments," Galehouse said. "That's why the kind of tree is important, since white pine and fir trees have soft and limber branches."

She said timing also is crucial.

"We like to do the packing close to Veterans Day, plus it has to do with getting things into shipping lanes before the holidays kick in," she said. "The trees usually arrive in Kuwait around Thanksgiving, then are distributed to military groups by Dec. 5."

She said many soldiers send letters and emails back in appreciation.

One soldier, 1st Lt. Jordan Thome, wrote from Kuwait last year, "It was a great surprise to find out that (the tree) was from Ohio! I am originally from the Dayton, Ohio area. I wanted to personally thank you for your dedication to the troops and let you know that it brought true joy to the soldiers in my unit. Have a blessed Christmas!"

He ended his letter with an emphatic "GO BUCKS!"

Last year's shipment contained 100 trees but this year, the Ohio Christmas Tree Association was able to raise enough funds to send 180 trees overseas.

"The trees are donated by the tree farms but the postage to get them overseas is a big expense," Galehouse said. "This year it was about $15,500."

She said Akers Packaging Service Group in Middletown donated the boxes.

The association has been sponsoring shipments of trees for troops since 1995, and Galehouse has been coordinating the process since 1999. She said about 120 tree growers belong to the association.

"We have two veterans who are members and they told us they loved receiving gifts and letters from home," she said. "Sending trees overseas doesn't sound like much from here, but we hear back from soldiers that it is one of the biggest morale-boosters they get."

Tree association representative Valerie Parks Graham said the students who made the ornaments and helped pack them this year were from the Columbus City Preparatory School for Girls and from Anna Local Schools in Shelby County.

"The kids were awesome," she said. "Making ornaments can be a great project for a classroom and way for young people to correspond with troops."

She said if classrooms want to get involved in next year's shipment, they could make ornaments at any time during the year or collect donations.

"We collect funds all year round and any money we get from now on would go toward 2018 Operation Evergreen," she said.

Those with questions may email Graham at val@ohiochristmastree. com.

Brett Gates, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said inspectors look for any signs of disease.

"Things we look for in other trees, such as (the) emerald ash borer, are not an issue with this type of tree, so the inspection usually goes smoothly," he said. "They can have particular diseases, but it is rare."

He said the department is happy to be a partner in the effort.

"We are thrilled to be able to host this process every year to give troops a little holiday cheer," he said. "We really want to thank them for their service."

Donations – in the form of checks or money orders – for the 2018 Operation Evergreen may be sent to the Ohio Christmas Tree Association, 6870 Licking Valley Road, Frazeysburg, OH 43822.

pwillis@thisweeknews.com

@PamelaThisWeek