The Coastal Star

To Korea, with love: South County residents send care packages to one of their own near DMZ

Capt. Christopher Colletta of Delray Beach takes a selfie as members of his Army tank unit open some of the Project Holiday boxes sent from Delray Beach to Camp Casey in South Korea. Photo provided

By Ron Hayes

On the morning of Nov. 7, Delores Rangel arrived at work and found an email from Dongducheon, South Korea.

This was unusual.

The executive secretary to the Delray Beach City Commission did not often deal with people 7,662 miles away and 14 hours ahead of her.

Ms. Rangel,

My name is Captain Christopher Colletta and I was born and raised in Delray Beach until I turned 18 and went off to college.

Since then, I commissioned into the Army and now am the Executive Officer of a tank company deployed to Camp Casey in South Korea, a few miles from the DMZ separating North and South Korea …

I recently saw on Facebook that you are in charge of collecting supplies to send to soldiers deployed overseas …

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Actually, Delores Rangel is a lot more than the person in charge. She is the reason Project Holiday exists.

“My daughter, Melissa, joined the Air Force right after 9/11, and my husband and I were devastated,” she remembers. “We knew we were going to war and she was sent overseas. She was barely 5 feet tall and she was in war zones.”

Rangel started sending her daughter boxes of goodies every week — through five tours in Iraq.

Before long, her City Hall coworkers were leaving donations on her desk — candy bars, toiletries, paperback books — and soon she was mailing several boxes each week, which E3 MP Melissa Rangel would share with her colleagues.

At Christmas 2006, Rangel joined with two established programs, You Are Not Alone and One Soldier at a Time, and Project Holiday was born.

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... Let me know what I can do to get a few goodies for my soldiers. I know it would mean a lot to them.

Very Respectfully,

Christopher Colletta

P.S. I love Delray so much that I even named my tank “Delray” at one point. Check out the picture of it during a training exercise in California — you’ll see it written on the gun!

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For Christmas 2017, the 12th annual Project Holiday sent hundreds of packages to service members in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and Korea.

Everything, from the candy bars, toiletries and paperbacks to the postal costs and hours spent packing the boxes, was  donated.

The Delray Beach Property Owners Association contributed. Crane’s Beach House hosted a fundraiser.

“The community just opens their hearts and wallets,” Rangel said. “It’s a great event. So many are still in harm’s way, and so many families can’t afford to send a package.”

In 2006, the military postal rate for a single box was about $10. In 2017 it was $15.95. One year, Rangel remembered, the total postage cost hit $7,000.

“All I need is one name,” she explained. “The boxes are rejected if they’re just sent to an unnamed soldier.”

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I went to Gulf Stream School. I loved it. My best friends were almost all made there — about half of us went to the same high school, and then we always meet back up for holidays and for weekend trips in between. — Colletta in one of a series of email exchanges with The Coastal Star.

Project Holiday volunteers listen to a presentation as they gather at the Delray Beach Community Center to stuff holiday boxes for troops. World War II veteran Edward Storck (right) was acknowledged at the event. His granddaughter is deployed in Afghanistan. 

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At 11 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3, more than a hundred men, women and children wait in the bleachers at the Norman C. Rolle Gym of the Delray Beach Community Center.

Edward Storck, a World War II veteran, is there from Lake Worth. His granddaughter Trisha is deployed in Afghanistan.

Johnny Castro with American Legion Post 367 has brought seven fellow legionnaires.

Out on the floor, three long tables hold large cardboard boxes brimming with stocking stuffers —edible, readable, spreadable and playable. The paper signs taped to the tables below each box identify its contents. This box has “socks.” That box is “sunscreen.”

We’ve got books, CDs and DVDs. Scarves and underpants. Lip balm and chewing gum, tuna fish and Slim Jims.

We’ve got granola bars, cookies, crackers and popcorn. Baby wipes, deodorant and playing cards. Even some yarmulkes.

And, of course, “miscellaneous.”

Meanwhile, in the room next door, a giant pile of 300 priority mail boxes waits.

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At 18 I left Delray to attend Vanderbilt, spending 4 years in Nashville. I also applied for and earned an Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps scholarship, which paid for my schooling and began my service.

The same day I graduated, I also received my commission and my parents pinned on my rank insignia as a brand new Second Lieutenant.

Christopher Colletta’s parents, Kathy Schilling and Joseph Colletta. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

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“He’s a real character,” Capt. Colletta’s father will tell you. “He’s very inquisitive, into multiple things. He went to a summer music school at the University of Miami and plays guitar and got an undergraduate degree in history and Chinese culture at Vanderbilt. He speaks Mandarin.”

Christopher’s father, Dr. Joseph Colletta, is a breast surgeon at Boca Raton Regional Medical Center. His mother, Dr. Kathy Schilling, is a radiologist and the medical director of the women’s health and wellness center at the hospital. His older brother, Matthew, has just begun an MBA program at Northwestern University. The family has lived in Delray’s Seagate community since 1982.

“We’ve never considered moving anywhere else,” his father says.

As part of the ROTC program at Vanderbilt, Christopher spent a summer teaching English at an elementary school in China, then two more summers in Taiwan and Vietnam.

“The Gulf Stream School taught him very good principles and civility,” his father says. “He’s never given us any trouble. He’s the life of the party, an organizer. Oh, and he does charcoal drawings.

“Hopefully, he’ll be coming back [on furlough] in March.”  

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Apache Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment consists of around 75 soldiers and officers, the 14 M1A2 Abrams tanks we operate, and a small fleet of other tracked and wheeled vehicles used to haul supplies and provide critical maintenance and medic support.

The soldiers come from all walks of life, and from every corner of the country from New York, to Alabama, to America’s Pacific Islands. We are all stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, where we spent over a year training for this deployment.

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In the gym, Dave Smith, a retired Air Force colonel who has been Project Holiday’s volunteer facilitator since the beginning, welcomes the volunteers.

Rangel and the other organizers are introduced with expressions of gratitude. They all say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The crowd stands to have its picture taken behind a banner that promises, “You Are Not Alone: Delray Beach Supporting Military Families.”

“Every box is a special box,” Smith reminds them, “so don’t try to make yours more special.”

And so they begin.

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Earlier in my career as a second lieutenant, I was a platoon leader in Dueler Company, Apache’s sister company. It is an unwritten rule that you name your tank something that starts with the same letter as your company, which was D at the time, so I named it Delray.

That tank stayed at Fort Hood when I went to Korea. It’s still there, though it likely has a new name.

I have yet to name my tank here … I think Atlantic Ave. wouldn’t be a bad idea!

Project Holiday volunteers Alicia Martinez, 16, and Isabella Balestriere, 15, pack one of the 241 boxes sent overseas. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

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Isabella Balestriere of Boca Raton is a Project Holiday veteran who has attended the annual packing sessions since they began. And she’s only 15.

“I brought her here when she was 3 or 4 years old,” says her mother, Cathy, the general manager at Crane’s Beach House. “It was all because of Delores Rangel and her story. It’s not just about packing boxes. It’s about bringing my daughter, bringing the families together.”

Isabella grabs an empty postal box and joins the line of volunteers moving along each table of donated items. She tosses in some scarves and ear plugs, some body powder, a toothbrush, AAA batteries and Doublemint gum, Clif bars and peanut butter crackers until the box is full.

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The executive officer is the second in command of the company and working behind the scenes to ensure all the logistical infrastructure is in place.

My lane is beans, bullets and turning wrenches. I oversee all the maintenance that we conduct. To put it in Florida terms, tanks are like boats — if you let them sit, they seem to fall apart.

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When the box is full, Isabella carries it to the final table, where Esther Rose waits, a roll of heavy-duty packaging tape in hand. She and her husband, Adrian, have been coming up from Boca Raton to volunteer since 2007.

“We have no family,” she explains, “but my father was in World War II. It was in England, but that’s OK. We were on the same side.”

After volunteering for 10 years, Rose has mastered the tape dispenser. A box appears before her and in three quick swipes — zap, zap, zap — it’s taped and moved along.

“I just like to help,” she says, zapping as she speaks. “What do the soldiers do for us?”

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Being just miles from the DMZ at Camp Casey, our duties daily involve carrying out training that we have developed to ensure that we are ready to “fight tonight” as the saying goes here.

If my commander identifies a skill set that he believes our soldiers need to practice, rifle marksmanship being a simple example, we put it on our calendar and do it.

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Capt. Colletta, 26, and his company are deployed near the border with North Korea, where the winters are very cold and the political climate increasingly hot.

North Korea is testing intercontinental ballistic missiles it claims can reach the United States.

President Donald Trump has threatened to respond with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

The North Korean foreign secretary says Trump is “begging for nuclear war.”

During a September speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Trump said he would “totally destroy North Korea.” 

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It’s not our job to provide our opinions, only to provide the best prepared soldiers possible so that when our political leaders say they have an Army at their disposal that is lethal and should not be provoked, they can say that with confidence.

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Isabella carries her taped box over to the stage, where Scott Petrolia, 15, of Delray Beach and Felipe Mora, 15, of Boca Raton, are waiting with scales and a black marking pen.

Scott weighs the box.

“Ten and a half,” he tells Felipe, who scribbles “10.5” on the side.

And then an address label goes on:

CPT. Christopher Colletta

A CO 1-9 CAV, Unit #15919

APO, AP 96224

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Our food service specialists are the real heroes on Christmas. They’ll be up extremely early to get to work — I’m talking 3 or 4 in the morning. I think this year we can expect some more turkey (we had some at Thanksgiving), and some ham.

Then, at lunch and dinnertime, we officers and senior noncommissioned officers will arrive in our blue dress uniforms and serve all the soldiers.

It’s been a tradition longer than anyone I work with can remember. I think all senior leaders value the opportunity to show the soldiers how much we appreciate their hard work.

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By 12:30, the packing is done and the volunteers wander out, or linger to chat and enjoy the complimentary coffee and pastry.

On the stage, 241 red, white and blue priority mail boxes form a neat stack about 5 feet tall.

One year not long after Project Holiday began, a small child was discovered drawing on one of the boxes. Now that’s a tradition. The kids too short to reach a table decorate the completed packages with holiday greetings.

“Merry Christmas” some wish in crayon, or “Happy Holidays.”

On one box, an especially ambitious artist has drawn a colorful rainbow, arching over the message “Your Awesome.” 

Children personalize Project Holiday boxes sent to troops. One is  marked with a rainbow and ‘Your Awesome!’

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This is my second rotation to Korea. I was here from June 2015 to February 2016. I missed the holidays that year, but was glad to be back home for Christmas 2016.

Hopefully this will be the last one I spend away for the foreseeable future.

The cold and snow over here isn’t kind to native Floridians.

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On Dec. 6, Delores Rangel mailed 49 of the Project Holiday boxes to Camp Casey, South Korea.

“I have not heard from Captain Colletta as it is still too soon for him to receive the boxes,” she reported Dec. 13. “If I were to guess, they should receive them by Monday, Dec. 18.” 

She guessed about right.

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For the past two days, I had been getting all kinds of phone calls to pick up my mail since it was clogging up the mail room. The clerks ended up having to do something about it themselves and delivered it to our door since there was no way I could transport it all myself …

We all had a formation outside our company headquarters after dinner chow, and that’s where I explained the rules of how we were going to get all the gifts evenly distributed. The snow was really coming down.

I had everyone go into the conference room by reverse rank order, with the lowest-ranking soldiers going first. They’re the ones who are most likely to have never spent a holiday away from family before, let alone across the Pacific Ocean. Besides that, they can afford the least when it comes to having gifts shipped overseas.

They picked a box, any box, and couldn’t peek. Eventually, every box had an owner. I told the guys that if there was something that they’d be willing to give up or trade, they could put it in the middle of the table and it would be a free for all after that.

And chaos ensued. Everything was over in probably 15 minutes, a loud 15 minutes of boxes opening, soldiers bartering, and all kinds of things flying across the room to their new owners.

You never know what you’re going to get in a box from someone you don’t know, but I think Project Holiday nailed it on the head in terms of providing some useful stuff. There wasn’t much left over when it was all said and done.

We have one Jewish soldier in our ranks, Private Cutler, and he’s built up quite a yarmulke collection — he specifically wanted to say thanks for that.

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The 12th annual Project Holiday sent 241 boxes of goodies to U.S. service members in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and, of course, South Korea.

“I’m so happy the community has put smiles on their faces and let them know they are not forgotten,” Delores Rangel said.

“It’s a lot of work putting Project Holiday together, and it’s a team effort, and they’ve done an amazing job of helping us thank our troops.

“Freedom is not free, and I thank God for them.”

Christopher Colletta wears an Army Stetson indicating his promotion to captain in a ceremony in November in South Korea. Photos provided

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I’ll be in the Army for about six more months, until May, which is when I plan on transitioning to civilian life.

I intend to earn a master’s degree in international affairs at a school in Europe, but those applications are still in progress.

Wish me luck! 

Capt. Christopher Colletta’s original tank at Fort Hood, Texas, bore the name ‘Delray’ in honor of his hometown.

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