Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of requirements and analysis at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network and a research analyst for Blue Star Families.
Written by Shelley Kimball
Orange and blue ribbons, snowflakes and stars, a family photo framed in rope, maps of the country with duty stations noted, glass balls emblazoned with “Semper Paratus” and messages of strength and pride, all telling the story of Coast Guard life.
A Christmas tree in honor of the Coast Guard stands in the vice president’s residence side-by-side with trees celebrating the other military branches. Coast Guard families had the opportunity to join with Dr. Jill Biden at a reception at the residence celebrating military families.
It all started in October when military families were invited to send in handmade ornaments to decorate Christmas trees that represented their services. The Coast Guard tree had 50 ornaments from families across the country.
As a token of gratitude, invitations to the reception were extended to families in the Washington, D.C., area who made ornaments for the trees.
Surrounded by about 75 family members from five of the service branches, Biden opened the reception by sharing her pride in military families.
“As a proud military daughter, mother and grandmother to military-connected kids, I understand the mixture of pride and concern that all military families share when a loved one is in harm’s way, and we keep in our hearts all those families who have loved ones serving overseas during this holiday season,” she said. “We owe thanks today and every day to those who wear the uniform. We owe a debt of gratitude to their families because as all of you know, when you have a family member who is serving in the military, the whole family serves. We’re so proud of each and every one of you.”
The five trees stand in an alcove right inside the front door of the residence. The sixth tree, in honor of the National Guard, is in Biden’s office.
Fran DeNinno, ombudsman-at-large and wife of the commandant of the Coast Guard, said she was impressed by the ornaments decorating the Coast Guard tree.
“I was very excited to see what the families had made. The tree is beautiful,” she said. “I loved the pictures as well as the Coast Guard symbols like the life preservers on it. I’ll admit I was concerned that maybe we didn’t get the word out to enough people but our families were ready! Semper Paratus!”
DeNinno circulated among the families at the event, taking pictures with Cubby the Coast Guard bear.
“The best part about the event for me was meeting the children of our Coast Guard families,” she said. “Catching their excitement was wonderful, especially seeing Santa!”
Janet Cantrell, ombudsman-at-large and wife of the master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard, said the handmade ornaments reminded her of the best parts of Coast Guard life.
“Looking at the Coast Guard tree at the vice president’s home gave me such a sense of pride — proud of the beautiful ornaments made by our Coast Guard families and proud to be a part of this wonderful service. To have Vice President and Dr. Biden honor our Coast Guard in such a way is a sincere tribute,” she said. “Many sacrifices are made daily by our CG members and their families, not just during the holiday season, but year round, and the beautiful tree, fully decorated with handmade ornaments, brought these works to life. Standing in their home and gazing at the beautiful tree made me extremely proud and honored to be a part of our Coast Guard family.”
The Coastie kids who made ornaments for the tree were also excited to see their work on display. My own kids, Joe, 11, and Grace, 10, made a mad dash directly to the tree to find their orange and blue wooden snowflakes.
“Being able to make an ornament for the vice president’s Christmas tree felt like a honor because it’s going in the vice president’s house for their Christmas,” Joe said. “At first, I thought it was going to be one big tree, but I was completely wrong. The five separate branches of trees were right there so you could find them. So the five trees for Coast Guard, Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy gave respect to the branches and made it easier to find your ornament.”
Grace, too, said she was thrilled to see her ornament on the tree. But she had some other priorities.
“I thought it was awesome that I got to skip school and meet Dr. Biden and have a really fun time there,” she said. “The house was really beautiful. It had so many details. I was really amazed on how the decoration worked.”
The Wirth family’s ornament was a light-up buoy in honor of buoy tenders. The Hon. Erin Wirth, whose husband is stationed at Coast Guard Headquarters, said that her children enjoyed the festive decorations so much that her daughter went right home to decorate her room. Her son said he felt very welcomed at the event. They all appreciated seeing the Coast Guard well represented.
“I appreciated the opportunity to personally thank Dr. Biden for supporting military families, including through military spouse employment initiatives,” Wirth said. “Dr. Biden reminded me that she still teaches and I understand that she is the only Second Lady to continue her career while in office. Joining Forces, which works on employment, education, and wellness for military families, was highlighted in the first wreath you saw when walking in the front door. Military decorations were everywhere, and I was particularly struck by the personal photos of Biden family members in uniform. It was an incredible honor to attend and to see their appreciation of Coast Guard families.”
Melissa and Emma Hartnett, 11, cut strips of orange and blue patterned scrapbook paper, wrote each place they’ve been stationed on a slip and put them in a clear, round ornament. On the outside they wrote, “Home is where the Coast Guard sends us,” and decorated it with a bow.
The highlights of the day for Emma?
“My favorite parts were meeting Dr. Biden and seeing the Coast Guard Christmas tree,” she said. “I thought it was fun.”
Emma also said the tree made her feel understood as a military child.
“It made me feel that the vice president and his family really appreciate what us military families have to sacrifice,” Emma said. “But we are willing to sacrifice.”
Making an ornament for the tree also had special meaning for Emma’s mom, Melissa.
“When I heard about the request for Christmas ornaments to represent the Coast Guard I immediately knew I wanted our family to contribute. The Coast Guard is often overlooked, and I wanted to make sure our service’s tree was as well represented as I knew the bigger services’ trees would be,” she said.
The invitation to attend a reception at the vice president’s residence was something completely unexpected, Melissa said.
“I thought the event was beautiful and it really made me and my daughter feel special,” she said. “It was very important for us to go and represent the Coast Guard because we are so proud of what our service does, and of course, we are so proud of my husband, Randy. It was truly an honor to serve as a representative of the Coast Guard and meet Dr. Biden.”
Although it was a holiday party, the Biden’s message of military support, including the Coast Guard, was a highlight of the event, said both DeNinno and Cantrell.
“I was especially moved by Dr. Biden’s remarks, stating how she continues to promote and recognize our military families,” Cantrell said. “I will remain grateful to the Biden’s for their support.”
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.