PORTSMOUTH, Va. (NNS) -- Santa led a caravan of roaring motorcycles onto the grounds of Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Dec. 19 for Operation Bright Light, an annual visit by area motorcycle clubs to deliver presents and holiday cheer to the children of hospitalized service members.
Members of Rolling Thunder Chapter 5, the V-Twin Cruisers, the Sons of Poseidon, and the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association braved chilly temperatures to haul and deliver more than 300 gifts to lift the spirits of children receiving inpatient treatment at NMCP.
"This is very important to the command and to the patients who are here," said Capt. Bradford Smith, NMCP's executive officer, to the bikers. "As a pediatrician, I know the incredible value that these gifts bring to the kids. They are at their very worst at that time, and so are their parents, and they're trying to get better. We've found that not only medicine, but that healing touch - those gifts that you give, bringing their spirits up - goes a million miles toward making them better."
Members of NMCP's American Red Cross station coordinated the event, along with NMCP's Chief Petty Officer, First Class Petty Officer, Second Class Petty Officer, and Junior Enlisted Associations.
"It's a great way for the community to reach out and help us take care of our military kids," said Chris Brogan, child life specialist at NMCP. "It can be tough being in the hospital throughout the year, especially around the holidays. I think a lot of people want to help, but don't know how to, and Rolling Thunder is one of those groups that make that happen."
The first stop for the convoy of volunteers was the emergency room, and from that point Santa and his troops of leather-clad elves traveled to the pediatrics ward and the pediatric intensive care unit, where they handed out presents and put smiles on the faces of young patients.
"I've been doing Operation Bright Light for two years, and the best part is the looks on the children's faces, then the look on the parents' faces," said Susanne Rice, a member of Rolling Thunder Chapter 5. "Christmas is through the eyes of the child, but when you see the eyes of the parents who are looking at their child's eyes, and seeing Santa, it gives me goose bumps.
You don't need any verbal feedback. All you have to do is look at the child's face and see the smile. That's what Christmas is all about."
Rice remembered her first experience with Operation Bright Light.
"I'm a nurse, so I'm used to seeing sick kids," Rice said. "Even if you don't like seeing sick kids, you gear yourself up for it and put that aside. When you look the kids square in the eye and see them looking at Santa Claus, it's just marvelous."
LaFrancis Francis, the American Red Cross station chair for NMCP, shared Rice's sentiments.
"The best part of Operation Bright Light is seeing the children and the motorcycle riders meet," Francis said. "When they get to meet, it's almost like both of them are seeing Santa Claus as 7 year olds. The eyes light up, the faces twinkle, the cheeks turn rosy on everybody. The sweetest time about Operation Bright Light is when that connection happens."
Santa didn't just reserve his bounty for the young patients, however. He also gave presents to their siblings, much to their delight and their parents.
"I thought it was really awesome, and my older kids thought it was fabulous," said Jamie Atkins, whose youngest daughter is undergoing care at NMCP. "They looked out the window and were really excited to see Santa. We've been through a lot, and it's really hard on my 8 and 7 year olds, so anytime the hospital has something special going on for them, it's something to make them happy when they have a lot emotionally going on."
After Santa visited all the children, NMCP's chiefs, petty officers and junior enlisted treated the motorcyclists and volunteers to a lunch of fried chicken and potato salad in the galley.
The presents that where not passed out will be saved and distributed to future pediatric patients by Red Cross volunteers and wounded warriors recovering at NMCP.
The motorcycle clubs visit twice a year. In addition to the December event, Rolling Thunder and the other clubs visit bring Santa during the summer for "Christmas in July," and also pass out gifts to children who are in the hospital.
For more news from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, visit www.navy.mil/local/NMCP/.