ARLINGTON — Another holiday season steeped in tradition is upon us. Thanksgiving 2022 is in the record books, and shopping season is off and running after the largely successful weekend that followed for local businesses. Wreaths are hung, and music is in the air.
For the last 16 years, late November has been the time for another tradition in Southern Vermont: bringing the Christmas tree to the Vermont Veterans’ Home in Bennington.
Four troopers from the Vermont State Police Shaftsbury barracks — Lt. Steven Coote, Sgt. Todd Wilkins, Sgt. Seth Loomis and Trooper Jared Lacoste — assisted in loading the 15-foot Frazier fir, grown at the residence of Don and Verrall Keelan in Arlington. They then provided a two-vehicle police escort for the tree down Route 7 to the front porch of the Vets’ Home.
Also present were several proud members of the Capital Trees volunteers that took a 55-foot tree from Green Mountain National Forest in Somerset all the way to Washington, D.C., to be displayed at the U.S. Capitol Building in 2007. The convoy that year made visits at eight different veterans’ homes along the way.
Everything about Monday — the tree, the trip, the entourage — might have been smaller than the memorable 2007 occasion, but the spirit was the same as always. Once the tree was upright on the front steps, Keelan presented Vets’ Home CEO Melissa Jackson with 150 commemorative “challenge coins” to be given to the residents of the home.
“It’s an honor to present the coins and the tree to the Veterans’ Home, and to the staff,” said Keelan before loosely quoting Winston Churchill: “Never have so few done so much for so many.”
Jackson, as CEO at the Veterans’ Home for the last 12 years, has been present for the bulk of the time that the tradition has been carried on. She said she was excited to be able to invite the delivery team inside to visit veterans for the first time since the pandemic.
“This is definitely the start of our holiday season here,” she said. “It’s just a prime example of the community support that the home gets, which we truly appreciate.”
Jackson said the tree on the porch will have lights on by the end of the week, and that the community tree lighting on the front lawn of the Vets’ Home will be Dec. 7 at 5 p.m.
Keelan and wife Verrall started growing the trees at their property in Arlington in 1991. The tradition has significant meaning for Keelan, a veteran himself who was part of the Marine Corps’ elite Silent Drill Team in Washington, D.C., from 1957 to 1960. His brother, who passed away at the Vermont Veterans’ Home in 2009, was also a Navy veteran.
Keelan was dressed up as Smokey Bear (often incorrectly referred to as Smokey the Bear) on the team’s 2007 voyage to the capital.
“We kicked off that trip here [in Bennington]. And I spent about two hours shaking veterans’ hands,” Keelan recalled.
“And then at Walter Reed (Army Medical Center), seeing the amputees back from Afghanistan and Iraq … thank God, I had the bear outfit on,” he added, pointing to his eyes, indicating he’d been moved to tears.
Keelan also mentioned how fitting it was to have the state police involved in the event at the Veterans’ Home. While many law enforcement agencies have common bonds with the military, the Vermont State Police was founded by a World War II veteran, retired Marine Maj. Gen. Merritt Edson of Chester in 1947.