By Diane Y. Welch/Contributor
Over a week in December, Rancho Santa Fe resident Gary Bobileff took time off from his business — Bobileff Motorcar Company — to volunteer in “Operation Christmas Spirit: 2010 Believe in Santa Tour,” visiting America's Armed Forces and wounded soldiers in the U.S. and in Iraq. This is the sixth annual mission to bring the magic and spirit of Christmas to active and wounded U.S. servicemen and -women, organized by a Solana Beach-based charity, The Spirit of Liberty Foundation.
With RSF’s Richard Rovsek — the foundation's founder; Corky Mizer — a trustee of the foundation; Dave Jordan — in his role as Santa Claus; and others, Bobileff flew cross-country from Carlsbad on Monday, Dec. 13, beginning the first leg of a series of trips that would end at Iraq's Camp Speicher.
Bobileff, a private pilot, donated his time and the transportation for the domestic flights, he said. Roger Nutter was his co-pilot. In U.S. air space the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) gave special permission for Bobileff to use the call sign “St. Nick 1,” an unprecedented occurrence.
Their first stop was at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas visiting with troops and handing out gifts. The team met wounded soldiers and hospitalized children of military families, several of them terminally sick, said Bobileff. The next stop was the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C.
“There we learned that of all those wounded 22 percent opt to return to service in Iraq or Afghanistan because they want to go willingly,” said Bobileff.
The team took an international flight from New York to Kuwait City. Met by Secret Service representatives and the government they were transported to Camp Arifjan.
“The government then sent a C130 transporter plane to fly us to Camp Speicher, 200 miles north of Baghdad,” said Bobileff, who spent three days there with the troops.
It was about two months ago that Bobileff was invited by Rovsek to join the team to go to Iraq for the Christmas mission.
“My immediate reaction was, 'No way' but give me more information,” he said. “Then it was, 'Well, I'll think about it', then it turned into, 'Ok, I'm going!'”
The mission was all strictly out-of-pocket for those committed to it.
“There was no sponsorship,”said Bobileff, “other than the gifts, which were provided by a corporate sponsor.”
The gifts were distributed by Santa. This is the first time he has been flown into Iraq. Rather than the traditional red velvet suit, he wore white fur trimmed camouflage. Gifts also included a game jersey belonging to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, hand-signed greetings cards from John McCain and other senators and governors, flags originally flown at the White House, and screenings of Sony Universal Motion Pictures' newly released movies “The Tourist” and “How Do You Know.”
Bobileff said that the spirit of the troops was incredible.
“They are so energetic, they are so 100 percent for the effort. The feeling from them is, 'We want to stay, we want to continue, we want to fight for the right causes.' The mental aspect of the soldiers is so strong.”
For civilians to undertake the mission that Rovsek orchestrated is unheard of, said Bobileff. “So to have everyone in the medical facilities and the bases open their arms to us, was just amazing.”
Unlike other base visitors and entertainers who put on a show and then leave, Rovsek's team ate meals with the troops and slept in the barracks.
“We were with these guys 24 hours a day,” Bobileff said. They asked, 'Why are you doing this?' We said, 'Because we want to.'”
There has already been talk about next year's “Operation Christmas Spirit” with some of the generals at the visited bases.
“They have invited us back and said that next year we can go to Afghanistan, which is something I casually mentioned to my wife in passing. She said, 'No way!' But I have a whole year to work on that,” quipped Bobileff.
According to its website, The Spirit of Liberty Foundation works to enhance the meaning and spirit of liberty and supports U.S. Armed Forces and their families, Wounded Warriors, and Families of Fallen Heroes, Inc.
to find out more.