Lori Schmitt always is pleased that Montana National Guard soldiers and their spouses enjoy the Christmas parties that she and her husband have thrown the last five years.
But it’s the delighted look on the faces of the soldiers and their families when they walk into the holiday-decorated banquet room that she remembers most.
The party that Mike and Lori Schmitt have given for the Guard’s 190th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion has been so successful, they decided to expand it this year.
The couple also will extend an invitation to the party on Saturday to members of the Guard’s 484th Military Police Comapny and the 443rd Signal Company.
The total guest list could top 300, up from the 150 to 200 of previous years.
Members of those units live all over Montana and will be in Billings for their drill weekend. While some members of the 484th returned home last week from Afghanistan, most of the company remains deployed in that country, said Maj. Tim Crowe, MNG public affairs officer.
The Christmas parties started when an employee of Mike Schmitt’s business, Biomet Osteo Systems, had a family member in the 190th.
After Lori and Mike were invited to one of its Christmas parties, they asked the National Guard if they could help out with the event the next year.
“We wanted to do something special for them,” Lori said. “This is our gift to them.”
When the husband of a friend of theirs was deployed overseas, Mike Schmitt became aware of how service affected soldiers’ families.
“I never realized the impact of war,” Mike Schmitt said, adding that civilians need to do more for families of those in the service.
The Schmitts are impressed that soldiers rarely take credit for their own service but instead acknowledge their families’ sacrifices.
So the couple wanted to create an event where military families could enjoy a few hours away from the worries of their everyday lives.
While the Schmitts foot most of the bill for the dinner party, others in Billings also chip in.
The party’s theme this year is “An Old Time Enchanted Christmas.”
The Rocky Mountain College theater department will build an "enchanted forest" at the Holiday Inn Convention Center where the party will be held. Sherwin-Williams donated paint for the project, Grand Lumber gave materials and Outdoor Lighting, the lights for the trees.
Children will be entertained by a clown; make gingerbread houses; play foosball, air hockey and basketball; and become living checker pieces on a large checkerboard.
Their parents will have a chance to win door prizes bought by the Schmitts or donated by local residents.
The Black Velvet Band will play.
The 190th party will be in the afternoon. In the evening, the 484th and 443rd will gather. Members of the 190th also can return for the evening party, too.
Santa will pass out gifts for children. The Billings West Key Club is donating children’s presents for the evening party.
This year, Lori hired a soldier's wife to make crafts to give away to those attending.
The Schmitts’ 9-year-old daughter, Bailei, helps shop for presents and decorate for the event.
At a young age, Bailei is learning the importance of the annual party.
“They are fighting for our freedom, and it’s our way of saying ‘thank you’ to them,” she said.
The Schmitts’ party always is “spectacular,” said Luke Altenhofen, whose wife is in the Montana National Guard.
He is the Family Readiness Group coordinator for the 190th, helping families of deployed service men and women.
The gathering always “bolsters everyone’s spirits,” Altenhofen said.
“The level of the Schmitts’ support is incredible and humbling,” Crowe said. “It’s an example of how people across the state help the National Guard.”
Lori and Mike hope that their party may inspire other community members to adopt another guard unit in some way.