Military trainees hosted by volunteers for Thanksgiving

SAN ANTONIO — The traditional Thanksgiving football game with the Detroit Lions played on television screens around the Rocco Dining facility.

It felt a bit like home, even though everyone was in military uniforms and a command sergeant major was serving turkey and all the trimmings behind the cafeteria row at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.

Three of the 5,500 Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines, military retirees and civilians who gathered in Rocco’s and Slagel’s DFAC, the latter named for a three-war veteran, Sgt. 1st Class Wayne E. Slagel: Might have been a little nostalgic. But they were also grateful to be here with his friends. There was camaraderie, a brotherhood and sisterhood. It was something new and he felt good.

“I know that Slagle, he was a sergeant first class, he was a war hero,” the private said. 1st Class Bryce Blair, 19, of Warren, Pa., near Pittsburgh. “I think he was one of only two (soldiers) to receive three of the combat medic badges.”

All soldiers at the Army Medical Center of Excellence followed in the footsteps of Slagel, a combat medic who served in World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Richard “Louis” Rocco.

The Department of Defense’s largest mess hall is named for Slagel, who earned his first Combat Medic Badge and Bronze Star for valor in the Philippines during World War II. He received both awards once again during the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in the Korean War, where he treated soldiers under heavy fire. He volunteered to return to active duty and went to Vietnam in 1967.

Rocco received the Vietnam Medal of Honor and helped others deal with PTSD in New Mexico after 22 years in the military. He returned to service at Fort Sam Houston during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Rocco’s roots were humble. His tenure as an Army medic began on a courtroom when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. A member of a Los Angeles street gang that stole food to feed his impoverished family, he made a deal with a judge to win a suspended sentence for armed robbery and join the army when he turned 17.

Rocco, who died in San Antonio on Halloween in 2002, enlisted in 1955.

If court deals like Rocco’s are made for military recruits these days, they’re a rare exception.

Most kids who join the military now do so to learn a skill, get GI Bill benefits, start a career, or seek adventure. Fewer than two in 10 recruits are eligible to join the military. But like young troops everywhere learning what it means to follow orders, rules and regulations, life in uniform is a big adjustment, even if they come from military families.

They are often alone for the first time, and Thanksgiving can mark the first major holiday away from the home-cooked meals and other trappings of civilian life.

“I remember my first Thanksgiving away from the Army was at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I had just graduated from airborne school,” said MEDCoE Command Sergeant Major Vic Laragione. “It was nice to go to the diner where I got all the food I was used to eating on Thanksgiving. I don’t remember many details, but I do remember having a good meal with some of my fellow battlesmen who were with me from AIT.”

He said that years of vacationing away from family would have been more difficult if it weren’t for one thing.

“I think what made most of those separations bearable was the people who were there with me. The military becomes your family, and through adversity and shared experiences, you create bonds that are often unbreakable,” said Laragione, 45, a San Diego, Calif., native who has lived in San Antonio and Corpus Christi. before joining the army as a combat medic. in 1995.

‘Very excited for today’

At Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland on the Southwest Side, a decades-long tradition is still up and running.

The volunteers, many of them military retirees, brought two or more Lackland trainees home for Thanksgiving dinner. Although the trainees have only one more week in Lackland, they welcomed the chance to take a break.

Trainees Anita Nwamkwo, 32, and Tammy Nguyen, 24, had been waiting since 7 a.m. with several hundred others to head out for a Thanksgiving meal.

“I was so excited about today — I write the calendar here and I’m marking there every day,” said Nguyen, who is from Missouri. “Like, oh my gosh, we’re getting closer and closer.”

His host, Jesús Gauna, arrived around 10 am For years, the 71-year-old retired Marine and his wife, Patricia, have hosted military members at their home for Thanksgiving.

In the couple’s spacious and cozy home near SeaWorld, the trainees enjoyed homemade banana bread, Mexican cookies, and coffee around a large dining table while Patricia cooked dinner and the World Cup played on a TV set in the the living room table. .

The three sons of the Gauna would arrive later with their own families.

“After my experience with Jesus, I understand what it is like for them,” said Patricia, 65. “You leave your family and friends behind, you start a new life. I mean your military family becomes your new family. We wanted to give back.”

The vast majority of the airmen of the 37th Training Wing stayed at Lackland and ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in one of four mess halls.

Only about 600 recruits in basic military training left the base, along with 50 trainees in a medical squad and dozens more who were allowed to spend Thanksgiving with their parents or guardians, said Joe Gangemi, a spokesman for the wing. .

Perhaps another 50 of thousands Airmen at the technical training school also left the base, home of Air Force basic training.

Typically around 6,000 people are in various stages of basic military training at Lackland.

“We are going to send 50 technology students to the Knights of Columbus, the one in Marbach,” Gangemi said.

a full menu

Thanksgiving meals were served at 12 soup kitchens at Lackland, Fort Sam, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and Camp Bullis, with an estimated 10,500 soldiers enjoying a traditional holiday meal that included 5,906 pounds of turkey, 4,922 pounds of roast beef, 4,266 pounds of ham, 2,953 pounds of shrimp, and 3,609 pounds of potatoes.

Dining rooms also served 8,610 slices of cake and 3,780 slices of cake, said Kristian Carter, spokesman for the 502nd Air Base Wing.

They all stayed in their positions at the Army Medical Center of Excellence, this time by election. COVID-19 had interrupted a tradition since Ronald Reagan was president, wiping out the Thanksgiving Mission at Fort Sam and Operation Home Cooking at Lackland, as well as Raúl Jiménez’s Thanksgiving Dinner.

‘Emotional vacation’

The Jimenez Cookout and Dinner at the downtown Convention Center took place this year for the first time since 2019, but MEDCoE Soldiers chose to remain at their posts and participate in group events rather than home dining.

“Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday for some,” said James Butler, food service contract supervisor for the 802nd Force Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio. “Some of our service members are thousands of miles from home and this may be the first time they have been away from family and friends.

“The Food Service team is proud and considers it a solemn obligation to bring a little bit of home to our service members with great food and a little bit of football,” he said. “It’s a great feeling and a sense of pride to see the delight on the faces of service members.”

Private 1st Class Bonnie Hill has just finished most of her combat medic training and will be relocating from Fort Sam soon. She joined the Army a year ago and arrived here last March, so the position already feels like home.

“I’ve been here so long that Fort Sam is my home, so going in and having Thanksgiving lunch with my friends and my command team is like eating at home,” said Hill, 22, of Stearns, Kentucky. .

“Even though I miss my mom and my family, it’s great to be here and see the camaraderie and everyone get together and be happy for at least an hour.”

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