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Holiday lights hope to make life brighter for troops

Army Capt. Kevin G. Heller is stationed in Afghanistan, where American holidays and other Western cultural traditions take a back seat to war.

But thanks to a friend in Hamburg, the Christmas season will be a little brighter this year.

Becky Mansell has launched a fundraiser to buy holiday lights for Heller and the men and women with him in Afghanistan.

"Think of what the holidays mean to you and imagine that it's all gone," said Mansell, 30, a teacher in the Sweet Home School District. "There's no change of seasons, no change in decorations, everything remains the same. It becomes difficult to acknowledge the holidays."

That reality galvanized Mansell to create Lights of Hope, which hopes to provide strings of holiday lights to the 10th Mountain Division of the Army, out of Fort Drum. "Whether [the lights] are hung in offices on Bagram Air Base or Kandahar, or on some shack on an outpost at a distant forward operating base, the soldiers who see them will be reminded of the holidays and that they will be home soon," Heller said in an e-mail. "It will also let them know that although New York is a cold place in winter, it is filled with people wishing them warm thoughts and best wishes."

Heller, 38, who comes from Walworth, east of Rochester, joined the infantry straight out of high school and served for four years. He then enrolled at Brockport State College, where he befriended Mansell. Heller continued his education at George Washington University Law School, receiving a law degree. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he rejoined the military.

"On 9/1 1, I heard the trumpets sounding the call to war, and after a 12-year break I found myself back in the Army," he said. Heller's unit was deployed in January.

Among the successful Lights of Hope fundraisers was a stand at the recent Ellicottville Fall Festival. Mansell said she now has enough money to buy lights for 1,800 troops.

The lights will be sent to Bagram, where Heller is stationed, and a lighting ceremony is planned. The remaining lights will then be distributed to two other bases.

Cash donations or checks made out to Lights of Hope can be sent to Lights of Hope, c/o Becky Mansell, P.O. Box 7, Hamburg, NY 14075.


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