Kyle Christmas tree lot names ‘tribute trees’ for fallen service members

Kei LaFleur attached a button featuring her son's picture to the tree named for him on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Kei LaFleur attached a button featuring her son's picture to the tree named for him on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

KYLE, Texas (KXAN) — If you need a reminder to buy a Christmas tree two and a half weeks before the holiday, this is it.

A Hays County business that sells trees this time of year wants to remind people who shop there of something else in the run-up to Christmas. The trees at Cross Plants and Produce all have names; most of them are holiday-themed, like Blitzen and Snowflake, or puns like Spruce Willis.

But, walking through the rows of firs, visitors come across names that don’t seem to fit with the rest: Sgt. Amanda Older-Downing, Sgt. 1st Class Dan Gabrielson, Capt. Jason Hamill, Trooper Damon Allen.

“Unfortunately, there have been many names,” said Jennifer Cross, owner of the plant and produce shop. “And, we honor all of them.”

“Wes was killed — was a lance corporal in the Marines,” Kei LaFleur told Cross Tuesday, explaining why she asked that the family friend’s name, Wesley Canning, be added to a tag hanging on one of the trees. “The families really appreciate it,” she said. “They really, really do. Just another chance to say their name.”

She knows they appreciate it, because she does, too.

“You miss him all year long. I miss him every day, but the holidays, just a little harder,” LaFleur said. Her son, Cpl. Jason LaFleur, was killed 10 years ago. “Time goes by, people think that we forget or we should be over it. But we really just want a chance to speak their name, to tell their stories, to talk about them.”

Jason LaFleur grew up in Lockhart, a smart, athletic leader, his mom remembered. “He loved the military life for whatever reason. He liked the structure and I think he worked hard. He believed in hat he was doing.”

The soldier’s team was responding to a call for help from another unit that had been attacked in Iraq on Aug. 4, 2007. When LaFleur and his unit arrived and started to help, an improvised explosive device detonated, killing him and two others. “Every year when that date rolls around, and you know, I’ll get notes and comments from his brothers,” LaFleur said, “and they will say, ‘You know, it was the worst day of my life.'”

“Life is different, but I carry him with me all the time. I think there’s never a day that I’m not thinking about him.”

A family friend asked the Crosses to name a tree for the fallen LaFleur, and they picked out a fir at least nine feet tall. “We mostly pick the really big trees for our soldiers,” Cross said.

The idea to add “tribute trees” to the lot started four years ago. One of Cross’s friends saw the cute names attached to the trees and asked if she could make a special tag for one of them. The name she wanted was Captain Frasier — they’re Frasier firs, after all — for a man her husband had served with in the military and who didn’t make it back home. Cross didn’t hesitate.

“And she said I have a couple of other guys that, you know, unfortunately died the night before they were being extracted with her husband,” Cross said. “And we thought, you know what, let’s name a tree after all of them.”

It grew from there; Cross posted a request on Facebook for her friends to send her names they’d like to have honored on trees. Then friends of friends started contacting her, and eventually so did strangers, asking to memorialize names, often with pictures and their stories attached.

Cross and her husband, Nathan, a veteran himself, have named a few dozen trees for fallen service members over the years. “And this is the first year where friends submitted first responder names,” Cross said.

A firefighter from San Antonio is on the list, as is a police officer from Killeen. The family of another fallen officer asked that a tree be named for Trooper Damon Allen, killed on Thanksgiving this year.

And just this week, a friend of Officer Kenneth Copeland, the San Marcos police officer shot and killed while serving a warrant on Monday, asked that the tree he was buying be renamed to honor the fallen officer.

Before this year, Cross viewed the names as a nice gesture, but not much more. “I really did not have any idea it mattered as much as it did until today,” she said, “until we talked with Ms. LaFleur.”

“Every time you say their name, they’re remembered,” LaFleur said. “It sounds kind of corny, but it’s very true.” The soldier’s mom and her family were at the lot on Tuesday to pick up the tree named for her son; this year, at least the name Jason LaFleur, if not the man it belonged to, will be home for the holidays.

“You learn to live with it, but I miss him,” she said. “I just — I miss him.”

Cross said they don’t advertise that some of the trees have the names of fallen service members — it’s not a marketing scheme to them. Instead, it’s a way for the couple to offer a small tribute to those who’ve sacrificed everything.

All their trees have names for this year, but if you’d like to add a name to next year’s list, you can email info@crossplantsandproduce.com with the name, rank and any other details you’d like them to have. You can also message the company on its Facebook page.

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