A Little About Who We Are
Hi, my name is Ernie Stewart and I sorta run things around here.
I suppose the true history behind the LBEH program goes back to November, 1991 which was my enlistment date for the USAF. Before I knew it, I was a snot nosed E-3 about two weeks into tech school at Keesler AFB in Mississippi. There were some rumors running around that we were going to be given leave to go home for Christmas, and having just finished basic training, of course everyone was pretty excited about the possibility of being "home" for the holidays.
After a few weeks of yes-no-yes-no we were given the final approval for leave but since it was last minute and during the holiday season, airfare was exceptionally expensive. And on my bi-weekly *gross* paycheck of $235 there was no way I could spring for a plane ticket from Mississippi back to my hometown of Rochester, NY. Without a blink of the eye my dear old dad, who really couldn't afford the cost of the ticket either, promptly charged me up a $600 plane ticket on the credit card -- a credit card he swore he'd only use for emergencies like Godzilla tearing the roof off the house.
Long story short, I made it home for Christmas, and it was pretty terrific. I got to walk down the jetway wearing my service dress and pretty much just looking like a Grade-A bad mo'fo (well, as bad as anyone in the Air Force could look anyway). All told, I never missed a single Christmas my entire five years in the military, simply because I was always within a seven hour drive of home. A drive I would often make with less than $20 in rolled silver change in my pocket, and I'd take the back roads so I could avoid the $7 tolls of the NY state thruway. Such is the life of our military's junior enlisted.
Spin the clock forward a few years to 2001. The world is chugging merrily along. I've been a civilian for five years, and in character for my class-clown mentality I enjoy running an adult humor jokelist as a hobby. A handful of my 10,000 subscribers occasionally accuse me of being too patriotic, but they quickly eat their words as we come to realize just how vital our armed forces really are with the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. Suddenly everyone jumps on the patriotic bandwagon and before you know it, our bridges and porches are covered in American flags. Two months later these same flags wave back at us, uncared for, tattered and faded, apparent victims of our short term memory loss.
So anyway, it was mid December, the 14th in fact, and I woke up and had the bright idea of soliciting donations from a few of my subcribers to see if we could scrounge together enough bucks to fly a few military folks home to their families for Christmas. Like most things I do, this went from, "hey I have an idea," to actually trying to do it in about 3-4 minutes. I've never been a big planner.
The call for donations to help buy airline tickets was more successful then I ever could have imagined. I figured I'd get maybe $2,000 tops, maybe get to buy a few high priced (holiday fare w/o advanced purchase) plane tickets, and call it a day. I'd go to bed that night, along with maybe a hundred other folks who donated money, comfortable that I've done something to right a few wrongs with the world.
Bzzzzzt, Not so fast, cowboy.
I'm here to tell you that within the first seven hours of the donation request being up on a Friday afternoon, I received over $6,000 -- yes, six thousand -- in donations from over 250 different donors. From there it just got better and at the close of the weekend we'd crossed over the $11,000 mark from over 500 different donors and had 21 requests for tickets. I was overwhelmed in both gratitude, and work!
To my rescue came one of my subscribers, Kathryn Jensen (Kat), who works in the reservations department for Continental Airlines. She had the inside track on military fares, refund policies, placing reservations on 24 hour holds, all that good stuff. She was absolutely instrumental in helping with the project and without her help, my expectations of a small handful of tickets would most likely have been realized, instead of being shattered like they were. As testament to Kat's nature, when we repeated our efforts in 2002, Kat took a week of vacation from her job to dedicate herself to book flights for LBEH full time. How's that for selfless?
All said and told, by the time Santa gave his naughty-or-nice list a final run down on Christmas of that year, there were 28 military personnel visiting their families who otherwise wouldn't have been able to, had it not been for the $13,000 donated by a bunch of really great people.
From there, an annual tradition was born.
I had ticket requests coming in as early as Halloween in 2002, and soon after we officially started the ticket drive by Thanksgiving, we already had our first dozen seats booked. Those astute readers among you will recognize the name USS Peleliu as being somewhat significant in recent history. For the sailors and marines that server aboard her, there was no Christmas in 2001; all leaves were cancelled and troops recalled as they sped to the Indian Ocean as the USS Peleliu was the very first amphibious assault ship to repond after the September 11th attacks so long ago. The Peleliu was also the base of operations for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, one of the first American forces to hit Afghanistan and set up a permenant base that remains occupied even today.
Ah, but in 2002 and we got a little bit of publicity that year. The Peleliu docked at her home port of San Diego in mid December, and her troops will be given a well deserved rest to spend the first major holiday with their families in almost two years. Someone on there got wind of the LBEH program and before you knew it, the requests were coming in. So, of the 94 flights we coordinated for military personnel in 2002, about 20 of those were sailors of the USS Peleliu. The following year, our goal was to focus on troops returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're proud to say that over 60 of the 161 tickets we completed were for troops on R&R from these war zones (this was prior to legislation that changed the government's R&R policy to cover the soldiers travel expenses from door to door, which was in Feb 2004). Almost all of those soldiers were from the 101st Airborne from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
In 2005 and 2006 our efforts continued and we had banner years for fundraising surpassing $91,000 and $75,000, respectively. We also added two more people to "our staff" - Elizabeth Montgomery and Valerie Peterson.