Military trainees hosted by volunteers for Thanksgiving

SAN ANTONIO — The traditional Thanksgiving football game with the Detroit Lions is shown on the TV screens at Rocco Dining.

It felt a little like home, although everyone there wore military fatigues and a sergeant major served turkey and all the trimmings behind the mess line at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.

Three of the 5,500 soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines, retired servicemen and civilians who converged on DFACs Rocco and Slagel – the latter named for a veteran of three wars, Sgt. 1st Class Wayne E. Slagel – may have felt a bit homesick. But they were also grateful to be here with their friends. There was camaraderie – a brotherhood and sisterhood. It was something new and good.
“I know that Slagle, he was a Sergeant First Class, he was a war hero,” Pvt said. 1st Class Bryce Blair, 19, of Warren, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. “I believe he was one of only two (soldiers) to receive three of the combat medic badges.”
Every soldier at the Army Medical Center of Excellence was following in the footsteps of Slagel, a combat medic who served in World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War, and Warrant Officer 2 Richard “Louis” Rocco.
The Department of Defense’s largest mess hall is named after Slagel, who earned his first Combat Medic Badge and Bronze Star for Valor in the Philippines during World War II. He received both awards one more time 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 Army. He returned to service at Fort Sam Houston during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Rocco’s roots were humble. His stint as an Army medic began in 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 earn a suspended sentence for armed robbery and join the Army when he turned 17.

Rocco, who died in San Antonio on Halloween 2002, enlisted in 1955.
If court deals like Rocco’s are made these days for military recruits, they are a rare exception.
Most kids who now join the military do so to learn a skill, get GI Bill benefits, start a career, or seek some adventure. Fewer than two out of 10 recruits are eligible to join the military. But like young soldiers everywhere learning what it means to follow orders, rules and regulations, life in uniform is a huge adjustment – even if they come from military families.
They’re often alone for the first time, and Thanksgiving may mark the first big holiday they’re away from home-cooked meals and other trappings of civilian life.
“I remember my first Thanksgiving outside the Army was at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I just graduated from airborne school,” said MEDCoE Command Sgt. Major Vic Laragione. “It was nice to go to the cafeteria, where I got all the food I used to eat on Thanksgiving. I don’t remember many details, but I do remember enjoying good food with some of my battle buddies who were with me at AIT.”

He said the vacation years away from family would have been more difficult if not for one thing.
“I believe what made most of those breakups bearable were the people who were there for me. The Army becomes your family, and through adversity and shared experiences, you create bonds that are often unbreakable,” said Laragione, 45, a native of San Diego, Calif., who lived in San Antonio and Corpus Christi before joining the Army. Army as a combat medic. in 1995.

‘So excited for today’

At Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland on the Southwest Side, a decades-old tradition is still in effect.
Volunteers, many of them retired military personnel, took two or more Lackland interns home for Thanksgiving dinner. Although the trainees only have one more week at Lackland, they jumped at the chance to take a break.
Interns Anita Nwamkwo, 32, and Tammy Nguyen, 24, had been waiting since 7 am with several hundred other people for a Thanksgiving meal.
“I was so excited for today – I write the calendar here and I’m there marking off each day,” said Nguyen, who is from Missouri. “Like, oh my god, we’re getting closer and closer.”
The host, Jesus Gauna, arrived around 10am. For years, the 71-year-old retired Marine and his wife, Patricia, have hosted military personnel at their home on Thanksgiving.
In the couple’s spacious and cozy home near SeaWorld, the interns were treated to homemade banana bread, Mexican cookies and coffee at a large dining table while Patricia cooked dinner and the World Cup was playing on a TV perched on the living room table. .
All three sons of the Gaunas would arrive with their own families later on.

“After my experience with Jesus, I understand what it’s like for them,” said Patrícia, 65. “You leave your family and friends behind, start a new life. I mean, your military family becomes your new family. We wanted to give back.”
The vast majority of airmen in the 37th Training Wing stayed at Lackland and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at one of the four restaurants.
Only about 600 recruits in basic military training left the base, along with 50 trainees on a medical detention squad and dozens more who were allowed to spend Thanksgiving with their parents or guardians, said Joe Gangemi, port – wing voice.
Perhaps another 50 airmen among thousands at the technical training school also left the base, home to Air Force basic training.
Typically, about 6,000 people are in various stages of basic military training at Lackland.
“We’re sending 50 technology students to Knights of Columbus, the one in Marbach,” said Gangemi.

a complete menu

Thanksgiving Day meals were served in 12 mess halls at Lackland, Fort Sam, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and Camp Bullis, with approximately 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 halls also served 8,610 slices of pie and 3,780 slices of cake, 502nd Air Force Base spokesman Kristian Carter said.
All remained at the Army Medical Center of Excellence – this time by choice. COVID-19 has interrupted a tradition that has been in place since Ronald Reagan was president, marking Mission Thanksgiving at Fort Sam and Operation Home Cooking at Lackland, as well as Raul Jimenez’s Thanksgiving Dinner.

‘Exciting vacation’

The Home Cooking and Jimenez Dinner at the Downtown Convention Center was held this year for the first time since 2019, but MEDCoE soldiers chose to remain at post and attend group events instead of dinners at home.

“Thanksgiving is an exciting holiday for some,” said James Butler, food service contract monitor for the 802nd Force Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio. “Some of our service members are thousands of miles from home and this will possibly be their first time away from family and friends.
“The food service team is proud and considers it a solemn obligation to bring a little home to our servicemen with a good meal and a little football,” he said. “It is a great feeling and pride to see the joy on the faces of the military.”
Pvt. Bonnie Hill 1st Class has just finished most of her combat medic training and will soon be out of Fort Sam. She joined the Army a year ago and arrived here last March, so the post feels a lot like home already.
“I’ve been here so long that Fort Sam has been home, so coming in and having lunch on Thanksgiving with my friends and my command staff is like eating at home,” said Hill, 22, of Stearns, Ky.
“Although I miss my mom and my family, it’s really nice to be here and see the camaraderie and everyone coming together and being happy for at least an hour.”

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Military trainees hosted by volunteers for Thanksgiving

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