Feed the Troops provide a taste of the holidays

Volunteers serve a traditional Christmas meal for the airmen at Dover Air Force Base on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Airmen started entering Hangar 792 at Dover Air Force Base at 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning and started lining up for their stops at 10 stations of food offerings. The last of an estimated 1,100 DAFB personnel who enjoyed a turkey dinner with all the fixings left the mammoth hangar at around 8 p.m.

Yes, it was yet another long day for Bob Reese, a retired Air Force Reserve technician master sergeant., but one that always proves to be well worth it to him and what has grown to be an army of 65 to 75 volunteers who helped him put on the 16th annual Feed the Troops Dinner at Dover Air Force Base.

“We started (Feed the Troops) with 17 turkeys some 16 years ago and (Tuesday) morning had 45 turkeys, most of them over 15 pounds,” said Mr. Reese, organizer and founder of the annual event. “After 39 years in the military and missing Christmas twice in Vietnam, I can respect the fact that (the airmen) can’t go home every year for Christmas or Thanksgiving.

“The biggest thanks I get out of doing this is when I see my brothers and sisters walk through that door, come down this line, and eat and smile and say, ‘Thank you.’ That’s all any of us want. There’s no other reason for me to be doing this other than to help these guys.”

It was a feast fit for a king — or queen — and included turkey, stuffing, green beans, corn, gravy, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. Not to mention the desserts. There were two separate sittings, one for dayshift and another for nightshift personnel.

Senior Airman Hannah Kelly, from Pensacola, Florida, said this was the first Christmas that she will not spend with her family. The gesture meant a great deal to her.

“I think it’s a really good thing because a lot of people don’t realize that there are many people who don’t get to go home for the holidays and it’s nice to get a meal like this,” she said. “This is my first time away from home for the holidays and it can be tough. This is really nice, though.”

Col. Michael Peeler, Operations Group Commander for the 436th Airlift Wing, gave a smile when he saw the camouflage-clad men and women snaking their way into the hangar/eating area, which had long tables covered with green and red tablecloths awaiting them,

“It definitely warms our hearts,” Col. Peeler said. “We’ve got a group of volunteers that are coming together to show they care for our airmen. It’s an opportunity for camaraderie, brotherhood and to break bread together and share a meal. It’s really special.

“We’ve got airmen (at DAFB) here from every state and territory in the U.S. We talk about family a lot. I say that I’ve got a family name that I wear on my chest, and I’ve got a family name that I wear on my shoulder, and right now this (shoulder patch) family’s coming together to take care of each other.”

Volunteer Lynn Thornton pours gravy on mashed potatoes during Feed The Troops for the airmen at Dover Air Force Base on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Not only did the airmen receive hearty holiday meals, they also got to visit a massive dessert table stocked with pies, cupcakes, and just about every sweet delicacy one could want.

Volunteers from Dover International Speedway, Veterans United Outreach of Delaware, Farm Credit, Multiplying Good and Kraft Heinz donated their time to serve and seat the guests of honor.

“I think it’s great,” said Mike Snyder, president and co-founder of Veterans United Outreach of Delaware. “Initially, we were behind the scenes (for Feed the Troops) just kind of buying turkeys, but the more that we learned and everything else about what was going on, we wanted to get even more involved.

“There’s lots of times I take a backseat and do things behind the scenes, but because what (these airmen) do here, this is where I served at – this is my stomping grounds. So, to give back to our brothers and sisters in uniform, you can’t ask for a better event. It’s a pleasure to seat them and meet them.”

Samantha Mitchell is an 11-year-old from M.O.T Charter School. She personally prepared 300 bags that she distributed to the airmen.

“I like to give back to the people who put their lives on the line and put joy on people’s faces when I’m able to give them stuff,” she said. “In the bags, I have tissues and a label that says, ‘In World War I a penny saved a soldier’s life,’ and there’s a penny on a piece of paper that’s taped. Some of my bags have playing cards and some have tissues.”

The joy of giving

Rene Baldrich, a retired Air Force Reserve technician senior master sergeant, has been right alongside Mr. Reese since the very first Feed the Troops in 2004.

“I was a supervisor (at DAFB) at the time and we were having a lot of deployments back then,” Mr. Baldrich said. “So, it was a way to give back to these guys who wouldn’t make it home for Christmas to their families.

“We went out and wondered, ‘What could we do?’ Bob (Reese) thought of it and we all piled right behind him.”

Mr. Baldrich used his vehicle and trailer to transport the cooked food in hot food carriers from Dover Downs to Hangar 792 on Tuesday.

Mr. Reese said his idea for Feed the Troops came from a gesture from his parents almost 50 years ago.

“It’s just something that was handed down to me from my parents,” he said. “When I joined the Army in 1970 and I was at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and I lived in College Park, Maryland, my parents always ‘suggested’ that I might bring some of my friends home when I came home from leave, so I started.

“When I did (bring friends home) my parents did things like took us to dinner at restaurants or just plain cooked at home and let us stay there and we did whatever we wanted to do, my parents just helped us out. It was all-year ’round, it didn’t matter if it was a holiday.”

So, around 17 years ago, Mr. Reese was sitting around talking with some friends thinking back to his Army days when the idea of Feed the Troops was born.

“Many years ago I was sitting around sharing the story with some of my partners and they said, ‘Why don’t we do that?,’” he said. “Well, you know the old theory that walls have ears … it started out with four of us and it turned out be the four of us and 20 or 30 people helped us out.”

That first Feed the Troops dinner back in 2004 attracted a crowd of around 300 people and it has been growing ever since. The event fed around 850 airmen last year and 600 the year before that.

Mr. Reese said that as more and more people get involved, putting on the event actually gets easier — despite its size.

(Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“A lot of the folks who are in here have been with us (for years) and some of them are new,” Mr. Reese said. “It’s a great team effort. We’ve been preparing this for around two months. We have a meeting and everybody gets together and it’s no longer just me doing this project, which really makes it easier. We have a great team.

“We might be in uniform today, but not in uniform tomorrow,” he added, “but we’re still family and we take care of our family. We watch out for the people that we served with and who are serving our country now.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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