One man's tree of tribute

Essex: Bill Kushnerick has turned a 6-foot spruce into a symbol of support for U.S. troops spending Christmas far from home.

December 25, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Along the red brick rowhouses on Warren Road in Essex, bright Christmas lights and other traditional decorations help set a festive holiday mood.

Until, that is, you come upon Bill Kushnerick's home and a 6-foot Norwegian spruce propped up on his front lawn.

Unlike more familiar symbols of the season in the eastern Baltimore County neighborhood, the tree sends a contemplative message with more than 100 bows on its branches in yellow, black, red, white, purple and blue.

Kushnerick is paying tribute to Americans in a dangerous place this season, far from families. And now, with this week's bloody bombing in Mosul, Iraq, his tree takes on more significance.

"It was really overwhelming, that he did this just out of the goodness of his heart," said Donna Reno of Parkville. She and her husband, Clinton, saw the tree on television and were touched.

They drove to Essex and placed a large yellow ribbon on the tree for their son, Cpl. John Novak, a gunner with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, who is serving his second tour of combat duty in Iraq.

Since the war began, public support for the troops has been clearly evident, with yellow ribbons on vehicles, American flags flying from highway overpasses and stories in the media about the stresses of combat.

"While there might be a fundamental disagreement with the war in Iraq, you don't see that same disagreement with our soldiers in harm's way," said Kelly DeVries, a history professor at Loyola College and a scholar on the military.

"They and their families need that nonpartisan support, because while a soldier's focus is pretty much on getting through one more day of survival, Christmas takes on a very personal meaning in combat and to families back home," DeVries said.

"It's sort of a public Christmas card for the troops," said Kushnerick, 53, a self-described former filmmaker. "I think we take so much for granted, and I thought the tree would be a nice gesture for the troops and their loved ones."

Kushnerick and friend Carolyn Kuebel, a retired Baltimore County school librarian, worked on the tree for weeks, hand-making bows, buying and securing the tree on the lawn and attempting to generate interest in their project.

"It's a simple act to let the troops and their families know we are thinking about them, recognizing that this time of year is an extremely lonely time," Kuebel said.

Clinton Reno, Corporal Novak's father, also has a historical reference point on what the tree means to his son and others like him.

"When I landed in California after serving a year in the Vietnam War, we were called baby killers," said Reno, who returned home in 1971 after a year piloting a Navy gunboat in the Mekong Delta.

"These men and women serving in combat should never face something like that," he said. "They should be embraced and honored. This tree might seem like such a little thing, but it's huge to those of us who really know."

Others, such as members of the Maryland Troopers Association, are impressed by Kushnerick's gesture and are donating ornaments for the tree.

"We want to show support of our servicemen and women overseas," said Robert Devers, executive director of the association, which represents nearly 2,500 retired state police officers. "By Mr. Kushnerick taking the trouble to do this, he shows the troops that we honor them."

American Legion Post 148 in Essex, with 800 members, is offering an organizational license plate surrounded by poppies that can be placed at the base of the tree.

"It's so touching, so stark, because all it is is a tree bearing ribbons, but it has so much more significance," said Tina Venker, an official with the post's ladies auxiliary.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s office and the Baltimore County Police Department donated a bow and an ornament.

Kushnerick, a native of Dundalk, did not serve in the military. His brother served several tours in Vietnam, and his father was a Navy diver in World War II. In addition to film work, he said, he was an operating room nurse before an assault several years ago left him disabled.

He said his holiday tree is from the heart.

"With all the varied colored ribbons on the tree, we just wanted to pay tribute to those serving in combat, those who did and the veterans who have passed on," Kushnerick said.

Monday's winds nearly knocked the tree from its triangular wire anchorings, but Kushnerick had the tree standing tall by early afternoon. The only other problem he has encountered is a squirrel that occasionally snatches a ribbon for its winter nest.

"My hope is that the tree will be a place for families of soldiers, or anyone else, who wishes to make a quiet prayer or attach something to the tree," Kushnerick said.

Novak said in an e-mail from Iraq that he "can't wait to see" the tree. Married and the father of two small sons, he is scheduled to come home in the spring.

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