Rancho Santa Fe residents bring holiday spirit to troops in Afghanistan

By Joe Tash

When three Rancho Santa Fe residents traveled overseas together in December, it wasn’t a typical holiday excursion.

Richard Rovsek and Gary and Maggie Bobileff spent more than a week in Afghanistan, visiting with troops and handing out gifts. They even brought Santa Claus with them, decked out in a special camouflage suit with white fur trim.

“We (went) there to bring the magic and spirit of Christmas to the troops,” said Rovsek, who arranged the trip through his nonprofit organization, the Spirit of Liberty Foundation.

“It’s a piece of Americana you’re bringing to them,” said Gary Bobileff.

“If you see all these soldiers, they really go through tough times,” said Maggie Bobileff. “When they see Santa, it really breaks your heart.”

The three Rancho Santa Fe residents were joined by two other friends, Carmen Iosue of Chicago and Larry Boswell of South Carolina, also known as Santa Claus. Gary Bobileff owns a Ferrari and Lamborghini sales, service and restoration dealership in San Diego, and Maggie Bobileff owns two Encinitas clothing stores. Rovsek is retired from running his own marketing and public relations firm.

While this was the first time Rovsek’s foundation arranged a trip to Afghanistan, Bobileff and Rovsek went to Iraq two years ago. The foundation has sponsored holiday events at military hospitals and bases in the U.S., along with a variety of other programs for troops and their families.

Due to ongoing hostilities in Afghanistan, this trip had more of an edge to it. Whenever the group ventured outside the gates of a U.S. military base, the visitors had to wear military helmets and bullet-proof vests and travel in armored vehicles. In all, they visited three different bases in the vicinity of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Several days before they arrived, Gary Bobileff said, one of their military drivers was fired upon by snipers.

“We were in a war zone,” said Rovsek.

“I was more scared when we planned the trip,” said Maggie Bobileff. “When we were there, we felt very secure.”

The group flew first to Dubai, then on to Kabul, where military escorts met them. No luxury accommodations awaited the visitors; they slept in barracks, dined in the base mess hall and used the communal shower facilities.

“It was real, true, honest to God military life, no frills, no luxury,” said Gary Bobileff.

During their stay, the group visited the mess halls of the three bases at various times, allowing service men and women to pose for photos with Santa, and handing out gifts, some of which were donated and some provided by the group themselves.

The gifts included electronics such as I-pads, certificates for free sets of times and discounts on autos for use by the service members or their families, and hand-written notes from members of Congress, governors and even the two former Presidents Bush.

In spite of the warmth they felt from bringing good cheer to the troops, the visitors found Afghanistan itself less than charming. The weather was cold, and the surroundings outside the bases were dirty, run-down and polluted.

Rovsek noted that Kabul was once a beautiful city full of trees and parks, but five decades of war have left it decimated and barren.

“It’s a cruel place,” said Rovsek, with a population that is barely literate, and a landscape littered with wrecked and abandoned military equipment and piles of garbage.

In the midst of winter, the mountain peaks surrounding the city were capped with snow, and flurries fell on the day the group left.

Rovsek said he would happily return in spite of the bleak conditions.

“I would go back tomorrow if it would help brighten the lives of the men and women in the armed forces,” he said.

Maggie Bobileff said she also would return, and next time, she would like to bring personal messages from family members of Camp Pendleton troops.

“That is what I would like to do, they would be very happy about that,” she said.