Holiday happiness is retired Marine's mission

HANOVER, Pa. — The retired Marine Corps master sergeant has his jolly mood to keep him warm. And the mission.

The 59-year-old Hazlett, now a chemical engineer at Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, takes his two-week vacation this time of year to make sure kids have a Christmas. And last Sunday dozens of volunteers gathered in the pre-dawn hours at a snow-packed parking lot in Gettysburg for the last big push. At least 200 families still didn't have any toys.

Gettysburg resident Hazlett has volunteered for program for 15 years, though this year was his first time serving the Hanover-Adams area. Nationwide, 750 communities provide more than 7 million children through the Toys for Tots program each year -- a strike force of real-life Santas.

Hazlett spent 22 years in the Corps, where instead of a sleigh, he rode inside a thickly-armored tank.

"I drove around in those big iron monsters and fired the big guns," he recalled, and was stationed across the globe -- Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines. Kuwait and Iraq.

In 1983, he was stationed in Beirut where 220 Marines died in a terrorist bombing. Hazlett's voice drops when he remembers climbing through the barracks wreckage in search of survivors.

He'd rather talk about helping people, like when he was ordered to Haiti in the 1980s after the Caribbean country was hit especially hard by a typhoon.

"We brought in fresh water lines and provided people with food and shelter," he said.

And it still breaks an old Marine's heart to imagine a child without a present under a Christmas tree, he confided.

The bad economy and shorter shopping season both took their toll in donations this year, he said. And there's always a shortage of presents for older children, who are harder to shop for and whose gifts tend to cost more.

So Hazlett did his own Black Friday shopping this year, buying more than 800 toys at Toys R Us with the help of corporate and local donations.

Thousands of stackable toys and games were neatly arranged on tables, like soldiers in lines of battle. Around the room were bins of smaller gifts ready for action. The volunteers deployed toys to family bags, considering the best strategy for each to have the best holiday.

They make sure each child gets a game, for example, ensuring families will have something to do together. In cases of siblings, two different games are packed.

"It puts a smile on my face thinking of the kids opening these gifts on Christmas day," said 15-year-old Dylan Despines, a member of the Hanover Area Young Marines. In all, 31 members of the group were there to help with the toy operation.

The volunteers lugged the black trash bags stuffed with presents out to parking lot, where the families waited. They shivered in their thin camouflage uniforms as they stepped carefully through the icy snow.

One of the waiting fathers was Hanover resident Harry Evans, who said he has had a rough year of it. Time was, Evans said, when he was a Toys for Tots volunteer himself. And like millions of Americans, he has donated toys as well.

But this year the 42-year-old's job relocated and he couldn't afford Christmas for his 4-year-old son.

"It's great getting the help in return," he said.

Another Christmas saved. But Hazlett still had work to do. He'd gotten word of some families who missed out of the last distribution of the year, so he'd have door-to-door deliveries to make before settling into his own holiday.

Then again, making holiday wishes come true is a year-round mission and Hazlett's already collecting toys for 2014.

"I'll never stop taking donations," he said.

Looks like Scrooge picked a fight with the wrong Marine.

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