Widely known as the “Lone Survivor,” retired U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell introduced himself as Buddy the Elf to an eager 5-year-old boy. Decked out in the “Elf” movie hero’s signature green attire, Luttrell and life-long friends on Friday were hosting a gift giveaway for families of some students at Gerald D. Irons, Sr. Junior High School in south Conroe.
The once rowdy Willis boys met each other in between their kindergarten and junior high years, and were dubbed “the Christmas Bandits” for a foiled prank in high school more than 25 years ago. Having seasoned into Montgomery County fathers and entrepreneurs in their early to mid-40s, Luttrell, Jimmy Ballard, Tray Cassels, Tide Murray, Ryan Watson and Brian Wilke are using the moniker and their own resources to spread holiday cheer.
“We’ve all been fortunate growing up, so we’re just trying to give back,” Murray said while paused from handing out presents to families of students at the Conroe ISD school. Luttrell rose to fame with an autobiography and a major motion picture, both titled “Lone Survivor” and detailing how he was the sole surviving SEAL team member of a 2005 Afghanistan attack by Taliban combatants. But he hailed the giveaway as a team effort among old friends.
“We’re still kids when we’re around each other, but now we do it for the benefit of everybody else,” Luttrell said.
Having started the giveaway on Thursday, by the end of the second day, the charitable posse had delivered presents to about 60 families who drove up to the school’s front entrance for pickup. The men bought everything out of pocket, wrapping it up and transporting it to the campus upon learning of the need families at the school faced from the ongoing pandemic.
“It’s been a very humbling experience and it kind of brings perspective to what’s going on out in the world,” Cassels said.
But in their youth, the friends found community notoriety in mischief.
When at Willis High School, one night in early December 1994, the group snatched decorations from different homes in the area and festooned one unsuspecting resident’s front yard with them. The high jinx were quickly cut short by cops with a headline in The Conroe Courier declaring the teens “Christmas bandits” for the incident, the friends shared.
And this ugly Christmas sweater-wearing Magi’s giving efforts were peppered with humor.
“We do good things in the community, so our wives let us hang out together,” Luttrell said jokingly.
Santa’s sack during the giveaway was composed of items requested by some of the students or their families. This included Nike shoes and footballs, Wilke detailed.
One kid received a rookie card of former Houston Astro Craig Biggio from Wilke’s personal collection. The owner of Wilke’s Badass Pits, located immediately outside downtown Conroe, includes the Hall of Famer among his clientele.
“We pretty much filled everything on the list that they really wanted,” Wilke said.
Meanwhile, the Christmas Bandits’ drive made Chinal Patel a pay-it-forward beneficiary.
Patel, a 40-year-old nurse practitioner whose son attends Irons Junior High, said she and her family had just donated to another family for the holidays. She and her family are Hindu, she mentioned, but said they appreciate and partake in the goodwill Christmas encourages.
“Where are y’all from?” Patel asked as she received her batch of presents in the school’s parking lot, with some of the fellas replying, “the North Pole!”
Towards the end of the day, the 5-year-old boy’s mother embraced a couple of the Christmas Bandits after they loaded her SUV with goodies. The mom of four warned them their good deed was going to leave her in tears.
“These parents are so grateful for what they receive, that they get to see their kids smile on Christmas Day,” said Irons Junior High Principal Robert MacFarlane, adding, “The need is still out there.”
Only around a year ago, the gang came to the aid of a Montgomery County mother and child.
Watson had volunteered to make repairs on the dilapidated Cut and Shoot mobile home where Judy Leigh, 49, and her then 16-year-old daughter, Michelle Perry, had been living in since May 2019.
He soon realized their abode was uninhabitable and recruited his fellow Christmas Bandits to find Leigh and Perry better living arrangements.
“These guys stepped up in more ways than one,” Watson said.
Cassels paid for the first and last months’ rent for a house in Willis. Landlords also let Leigh keep the same rate she was paying at the mobile home while now enjoying a more spacious kitchen and living room.
The Christmas Bandits protectively moved Leigh’s and Perry’s belongings from the trailer to house while cold rain poured down.
“They were awesome,” Leigh said. “It was just amazing how quickly we got in here.”
Leigh considers the Christmas Bandits’ help life-saving.
“I’m glad we didn’t live (at the mobile home) because we would have froze to death” during February’s winter storm, Leigh said, adding she learned a pipe burst in what was her daughter’s bedroom during the weather event.
These charitable acts may be a newly acquired Yuletide tradition for the men, but Luttrell encourages people to try and perpetuate holiday generosity well unto next year.
“I try and keep my Christmas spirit through the entire year. I lost it the second day,” he said to laughter from his friends, but finished by saying others face adversity and if “you think about that like that, then there aren’t more bad days for you any more. Someone else is having them. You’re just trying to help them out with it.”