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Boy from iconic wartime photo pays it forward at Christmas

A teenager whose father died in the Iraq war is now drawing on his own experience to help other kids this holiday season. NBC's Kate Snow reports.

It's one of the most powerful pictures from the Iraq war: an 8-year-old, his lip trembling, is handed a folded flag at his father's funeral.

The iconic image inspired a family friend - someone the young Christian Golczynski had never met - to send him a present and, later, to launch a foundation that helps hundreds of kids just like him

Every year, A Soldier’s Child sends children of fallen soldiers gifts on their birthday. Christian's father, Marine Staff Sgt. Marcus Golczynski, was killed in Iraq in 2007, so Christian was the first recipient. Now, there are 1,200 in 46 states.  

Aaron Thompson / Daily News Journal / AP

Christian Golczynski, 8, receives the flag that covered the coffin of his father during a graveside service in 2007.

“It's letting these kids know...you're not invisible to us, we recognize what you go through and how you serve our country,” said Daryl Mackin, the group’s founder. “I mean, imagine missing your parents on your birthday, you know, Christmas, Thanksgiving, all the special days, you know, you hit the home run and your dad's not there.”

And six years after that famous photo was taken, Christian is doing his part to carry out the mission of A Soldier's Child and make the holidays easier for other military children.

Christian is 15 now, a sophomore in high school and a goalie on his lacrosse team. He and his mother, Heather, are “adopting” other military families, picking out presents so they don't feel forgotten during this holiday season.

"I really just hope that they feel like I did the first year when I got it," Christian said. "Just really nice inside...the thought of knowing that someone else is thinking about you over the holidays."

In 2010, the Golczynskis adopted Connor and Cooper Bunting, ages 6 and 4, whose father, Army Capt. Brian “Bubba” Bunting was killed in Afghanistan just days before their mother, Nicki, learned she was pregnant with the younger boy.

"It was really, really special," Nicki Bunting said of the care package, which included child-sized lacrosse sticks and child-sized footballs, representing her husband's favorite sports. "It was just so neat to just see my kids light up and get this package full of stuff.

Daryl Mackin, the founder of "A Soldier's Child" on the image of a young boy that moved so many people and what is being done for the children of military families.   

"When people do nice things for my kids, it just means the world to me. Because to see them happy is what keeps me going," she said.

This year, the Golczynskis gave gifts to three families: the daughter of a soldier killed in 2008; the sons of a soldier who is currently deployed; and the family of a Marine who took his own life earlier this year, leaving behind a 10-year-old daughter and a one-and-a-half-year-old son with a brain tumor.

Christian sold some of his lacrosse gear to help raise money for the last family. And he asked Daryl Mackin to send him a gift card this year, so that he could pass it on to them as well.

"Christian seems like such a remarkable, remarkable teenager," said Bunting, whose sons still play with the lacrosse sticks Christian picked for them. "To want to give to other families like that is so special because that's not something that a lot of other teenagers are thinking about these days."

Even though seven years have passed, Christian acutely feels the absence of his father, Marc.

"A lot of times during lacrosse games I can look over and see everyone else's dad and my mom just like next to them," the Crofton, Md., high-school athlete said. "So it's always a reminder there that I don't have him."

Heather Golczynski said because of the many kindnesses they received, she and Christian have always wanted to "pay it forward."

And Christian believes his dad would be proud of the young man who showed so much strength in a photo that touched so many people in 2007.

"Yeah," he said. "He'd be smiling."

For more information on how to help military families, visit A Soldier’s Child Foundation.