The jolly old man in the red suit worked the big room paying special attention to all the children.
Around Marine Corps installations this time of year, the man in the bright red campaign hat can be seen handing out candy canes and maintaining Christmas cheer for all.
He is Gunny Claus, sibling to Santa.
This Claus appears around Christmas in search of kids who need him.
Last week, Gunny Claus came out to greet families waiting for the return of Cherry Point-based Marines coming home for Christmas after a six month deployment to the Mediterranean with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“The kids know there dad’s a Marine and having the Marine connection I think they are just naturally drawn to the whole Santa Claus thing and we are Santa Claus’s brother and we take the message to Santa as to what they might want for Christmas this year,” explained Ken Myers, of Pine Knoll Shores, who has brought the character to life for the last six years.
He would prefer to be referred to as Gunny Claus.
“We are not in it for us. We are in it for the kids,” he said. “I think they really enjoy it. They enjoy the Marine Corps connection and the holiday cheer and our job is to take care of these kids. This year we are doing 82 Christmas parties.”
We do a lot of Christmas parties and one of the FROs for the group invited me to add a little Christmas cheer to the coming home.
The family readiness officer asked Claus to come out for the returning Marines.
The tradition has roots.
“About 12 years ago, a master sergeant and a gunnery sergeant were sitting in a bar and all of their units were deployed and the families were pretty depressed and didn’t want to have Santa Claus for Christmas so they were trying to figure out how to help these deployed families get a little more Christmas spirit so they came up with an idea based on a World War I legend,” Myers explained.
“The French newspapers were just impressed with the Marine Corps camaraderie and uplifted attitude so they went out to interview him and he was in the trenches and he saw a guy going down the trenches in a red raincoat and he had toilet paper stuffed around his face,” Myers explained. “The report is not sure if he was a gunner, which would be a warrant officer or a gunnery sergeant, but they called him ‘Gunny Claus’ and he was going up and down the line giving everybody the Merry Christmas treatment and from there they took that story and they developed Gunny Claus, and the uniform is all based on that.”
Hash marks on Claus’ sleeves represent the years that Marines have been in combat zones. The medals on his chest honor the instances that the Marine Corps was in Major operations around the globe.
“It’s been going on for 14 years now and we did 12,000 kids last year mostly at Camp Lejeune, New River and Cherry Point,” said Myers. “We’ve even done some of the naval bases.”
Myers, 68, was actually a Marine from 1967 to 1971 serving in Vietnam and in Washington, D.C.
“I really enjoy being around all the kids,” he said. “I get to enjoy being around the Marines again. Once a Marine, always a Marine. And Merry Christmas to all.”