SUN PHOTO/LAURIE KROSNEY Sgt. Tami Kemper-Pena, a Holmes Beach
woman who was wounded in Iraq, sits by Santa in his sleigh. On
Santa’s lap is her grandson, Gabrielle, 2. Other family members
from left to right are Ali Kemper, 18, Shannon, 13, and
Genevieve, 8, with Brian, 1, on her lap.
HOLMES BEACH – It was Christmas Eve.
Shoppers were running in and out of Publix getting last minute items for their holiday feasts. They couldn’t help rubbernecking a little as they saw a beautiful sleigh stacked high with gifts and people in pirate garb milling around in the parking lot.
It was the Anna Maria Island Privateers getting ready to bring a memorable Christmas to Sgt. Tami Kemper-Pena, her three children and her two grandchildren.
"We wanted to do something special for someone for Christmas, and we wanted to do it for someone who was serving our country," Privateers Secretary Bekka Stasney said. "We called the Manatee County Armed Forces Service Center and they gave us Tami’s name."
Kemper-Pena was wounded in a mortar attack while serving in Iraq. She sustained a brain injury as well as neck and back injuries.
After months of treatment, including 14 surgeries with more to come, she got leave to come home to her family for a few days at Christmas.
"It’s so good to be home," she said on Christmas Eve as the Privateers carried load after load of goodies, including a bed and money for a new stove into her house. "I just wish my husband could be here."
Her husband, Roland Pena, is still on active duty in Iraq, though he’s connected to the family by Web cam.
The children have been largely in the care of Kemper-Pena’s oldest daughter, Ali, who is 18, and her fiancé, Jeffrey Roberts, a marine who was awarded a Purple Heart after serving two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Shannon, 13, held her nephew Brian, 1, and smiled gently at all the activity while Genevieve, 8, stayed as close to her mother as she could get.
Gabrielle, 2, was really into the Christmas spirit. He climbed right up in to Santa’s sleigh and perched himself on the red-suited lap while everyone else was sorting out what was happening.
When he climbed down, he got on a brand new bicycle with training wheels that was just his size and he jumped right on. He knew just what to do.
When everything was finally carried in, Dennis Poteet, the Privateers president, asked for quiet so he could say a few words.
"We all want to thank you for your service to our country," Poteet told Kemper-Pena. "And we want to thank your husband and your daughter’s fiancé, too. Thank you."
The Privateers, some surreptitiously wiping tears from their eyes, all responded with thanks as well.
Kemper-Pena thanked the Privateers, and everyone wished Pena a Merry Christmas in Iraq.
Several people were making videos of the event, which will be shared with Pena overseas.
With a rousing round of "We wish you a Merry Christmas," the Privateers left, only to return on Christmas day to deliver a fully cooked Christmas dinner.