Stunt Bear didn't make it very far out of the potato gun. And unfortunately, the force of the ride tore the bear in two.
Fire Station No. 1 of the Billings Fire Department was responsible for the demise of the stuffed animal on Tuesday, but not before crew members dedicated a navy blue T-shirt to the Hero to Hero U.S. National Tour.
Now in its third year, Hero to Hero was created by Liz Jackson as a tribute to her cousin Jake Herring, who died in Iraq on April 28, 2004, at 21. The organization collects T-shirts, signed by local fire and police departments, and sends them to soldiers serving in the war. To date, Hero to Hero has shipped 11,000 shirts.
The tour also travels with a couple of mascots — a stunt bear and a show bear. The show bear displays pins and memorabilia collected on the tour, while the stunt bear is subjected to a range of challenges at each stop.
In the past, the stunt bear has tangled with an alligator and a guard dog. Photos illustrating the bear's feats are posted on a Web site that troops can access — Heretohero.us. After stunt bear was blasted out of the potato gun, Bilings firefighters patched up the toy with gauze and medical tape and sent him on his way.
Jackson and her photographer, Jeenee Caron, accepted a T-shirt for a soldier serving in the Middle East.
"It's done every year until they come home," Jackson said of the grassroots effort. "No politics, no pro- or anti-war. It's strictly for morale." Jackson anticipates needing anywhere from 7,500 to 10,000 shirts this year.
When Herring's football number, 55, was retired in their hometown, Jackson decided to 'drive 55' in his honor. Each tour visits 55 different cities and takes a month.
Jackson said a military intelligence unit, unable to wear civilian clothes, turned its shirts into pillowcases. To the soldiers, it's a piece of home, she said.
In addition to Stunt Bear, Jackson and Caron brought along a banner, and another teddy bear decorated in patches and pins from stations they've visited.
Battalion Chief Budge Parker said last year was the first Billings' fire and police departments worked together to send T-shirts through Hero to Hero.
"Last year Liz contacted us and asked if we'd like to be a part of the tribute," said Parker. "We said, 'absolutely.' This is a lot of work on the part of the gals who organize this. We just think it's a great way to support the troops."