Something to be thankful for

Lauren DiSpirito

The Blue Star Mothers flag hanging in the window of Bonnie Lee Cotter’s Bryn Mawr home displays two red stars instead of three today. Each star denotes a service member in active duty. Until two weeks ago, the flag in Cotter’s window had three red stars, one for each of her family members serving in the wars. Cotter was able to take down one of the stars after she received a phone call from her daughter-in-law saying she was home from war for good.Cotter, Villanova Class of ’76 and a local photographer, still has two sons in the Army – J.J. Williamson, 28, is with the Special Forces in Afghanistan, and Jon Williamson, 26, is stationed in Baghdad. J.J.’s wife, Hope Williamson, 27, was also in Iraq.”As a family member, I live from phone call to phone call,” says Cotter, who was a guest speaker at a University journalism class. “You never know who’s going to come knocking on your door with a chaplain.”Rather than sitting around worrying, Cotter, a mother of five, chooses to direct her energy into organizing collection drives for the troops. The “Holiday Hugs for Heroes” drive is now underway, gathering donations of toiletries, books, games and letters of support for the soldiers. Members of the St. Thomas of Villanova Parish who started the drive reached out to Cotter, whose children grew up attending Mass there. “It’s just another way to help support my kids,” Cotter says.Cotter, who has her own business, American Legends Photography, also runs another collection drive called “S’port Our Soldiers.” When she photographs local Little League and township sports teams, she asks the players to donate sports equipment that is then shipped to Iraq. The donations of soccer balls, lacrosse sticks, jerseys and other equipment are used to help foster better relations between American servicemen and children living in Baghdad, she said. “If [Iraqi parents] see their kids having fun, maybe that’s one less IED they put out that night,” Cotter says. “Maybe they say, ‘We’re going to go with the American troops.'”Cotter says she communicates with her two boys as often as she, and they, can, but she says that isn’t very much. While J.J., the eldest of her five children, gives her few details of his whereabouts and duties in Afghanistan, she does know that his mission involves looking for members of the Taliban in caves in the mountains. He went to Afghanistan after a 14-month tour in Iraq.Jon is equally involved in perilous missions in Baghdad, where he has been stationed for 13 months. His missions include escorting dignitaries and searching for and destroying IEDs that have been laid throughout the city. Hope, who married J.J. in 2005, just returned home from her final tour of duty and will be officially discharged from the army next month. All three are graduates of West Point. Cotter said she supported her sons’ decisions to attend the military academy because it was a good fit for them. They will both finish their military commitments in 2009.Cotter said negative news reports about the war frustrate J.J. and Jon, who believe that journalists aren’t focusing on the good being done. Both boys say the Iraqi people don’t want U.S. troops to leave their country, according to Cotter. Jon reports tremendous improvement within Iraq, she said, and soldiers are now working on building the country’s infrastructure.Despite growing anti-war sentiment in this country, Cotter believes support for the troops remains high. “Whether or not they agree with the war,” Cotter said, “people want to help the troops.” She finds local anti-war protesting upsetting, though, and tries to avoid conversations about the U.S. presence in the Middle East. “The fact is, we are there,” Cotter says. “People love to sit me down and give me history lessons, as if I don’t know.” Frustrated by protestors waving signs that read, “Honk to impeach Cheney,” Cotter asked, “Where is any sign that says support our troops?”When asked if she would continue to collect donations for the troops once her boys return home, Cotter replied with certainty. “If all the troops came home,” she says, “we can always raise money for the troops who are injured.”

Donations to Holiday Hugs for Heroes will be collected at St. Thomas of Villanova parish in Villanova, St. Katharine of Siena parish in Wayne, and St. John Neumann parish in Bryn Mawr. Requested items include socks, non-medicated eye drops, flip flops, new and used DVDs, magazines, and insect repellant. Donations should be submitted by Sunday, December 2, in order for the soldiers to receive the packages by Christmas. For more information, contact Bonnie Lee Cotter at [email protected].