Soldiers in Santa's lap: Brothers reunite for family tradition
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Among the crowd of last-minute visitors lined up to see Santa Claus Tuesday in Santa Rosa's Coddingtown Mall, two young men stood out, and not just for their age.
Santa Rosa brothers Alec and Sam Wren, who towered over the toddlers rehearsing their Christmas requests, had been here before — every year of their young lives, in fact.
But this time, to fulfill what has become a family tradition — an annual snapshot with Santa — the brothers were dressed in their Army fatigues.
Having enlisted this year, they'd flown home from military posts thousands of miles apart for a brief holiday reunion before they have to split up again.
In April, Alec, 20, who had a head start on Sam, 18, will deploy as a combat engineer in northern Afghanistan, clearing explosive devices and insurgents from military transport routes.
So it was a sweet but poignant moment for their mother, Leigh Wren, when, just like those years past, Santa waved them in Tuesday, though not before the jolly old fellow did a double take at his bigger-than-usual visitors.
“It's a happy day today, and it will be a good day tomorrow,” said Leigh Wren, looking on. “But I'll be sad after that. We want every minute to go by slowly.”
The pair of brothers drew a happy crowd of strangers, family and friends around Santa's post. The impromptu audience broke out in applause and several people people later approached the young men to thank them for their service.
“A lot of us have been there. We appreciate it,” said Rodeo Van Bladel, 37, a Santa Rosa resident who shook Alec's hand, saying many in his family had served in the military.
For years the brothers tolerated the holiday ritual, having to be coaxed and cajoled by their mother to take their place in Santa's line, terrified of being spotted by a friend.
“I remember one year, I was standing there and a little girl said, 'Wow, these are big kids in line for Santa,'” said Sam Wren, who graduated this year from Montgomery High School. “I was standing there with a red face.”
But now they have now embraced the tradition, which is captured in photos that adorn the family's refrigerator around Christmas time, each picture labeled on the back with the year it was taken.
“It been kind of an evolution to show how we've grown up,” said Sam Wren. “We might have an embarrassing and weird tradition, but it shows that our family is together and that we love each other a lot.”
He flew home Friday from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where he is about a third of the way through basic training. He is set to return Jan. 3.
Alec, who returned Monday, has a shorter leave. He is scheduled to return Friday to Fort Lewis, Wash., where his unit is stationed before an upcoming stint of training at several other bases across the country in advance of deployment.
Contemplating a career in the military, and possibly a second one in law enforcement, Alec is the more reserved counterpoint to his outgoing younger brother. He admits to excitement about his upcoming deployment while being understated about the risks of his assignment, which he described as “getting rid of bombs and bad guys” on convoy routes.
“Often, we're only a couple of feet away from a (detonated) blast,” he said. “It's pretty tough.”
He said he was looking forward to time with family on his break and a meal at In-N-Out Burger. The fast-food joint does not have restaurants in Washington. He told Santa he could use a new pair of combat boots.
His brother Sam said he wished for Alec's good health and preparation in training and for strength for his parents in the coming years. Troy and Leigh Wren have discussed buying a recreational vehicle to travel some while their sons are serving in the military, and Sam said he hopes they'll follow through on those plans.
“It's sad, but it's a new experience this year,” Sam Wren said. “I think it's going to bring out the best in all of us, all of our strengths.”
After his initial surprise, Santa Claus, for his part, didn't miss a beat Tuesday. He asked the young men about their training and duties and then provoked a laugh in the photo session.
“Say PT,” Santa said, using military slang for “physical training” to get the brothers to smile while posing for the camera. “Say night run.”
Passers-by stopped and took photos of the grown threesome, St. Nicholas bookended by two young soldiers.
“I think that's amazing,” said Amanda Mathias, 31, of Santa Rosa said after being told of the brothers' ritual.
Leigh Wren tried to bottle up her emotions in the moment. “I knew it was coming,” she said. “But it's hard.”
But the brothers already have a plan for keeping their photo streak alive in the interim. It involves merging together Santa shots from posts that may be a world apart.
Years down the road, with good luck, the holiday photos may have new additions.
“I'll probably do this tradition with my kids,” said Sam Wren. “And I could see us bringing our two families together to do it. That would be cool.”