JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
Maj. Gen. Dennis P. LeMaster and Command Sgt. Maj. Clark J. Charpentier, the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence Command Team, were all smiles as they had the pleasure of serving a special meal for Advanced Individual Training, or AIT, Soldiers.
In what has become an Army tradition, senior leaders served Thanksgiving meals to Soldiers at the Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston dining facilities, or DFACs, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 2021.
Dozens of leaders and drill sergeants throughout MEDCoE joined LeMaster and Charpentier to take part in the tradition of serving their troops, making the DFACs feel like home.
“I think it is important for Soldiers to know that they have leadership present, that leadership is involved and cares for them,” LeMaster said between meals. “It sends a message: Hey, we want to be with you.”
LeMaster and Charpentier’s spouses also helped serve. LeMaster said that being with Soldiers to kick off their own Thanksgiving has become a tradition for their family: “Traudi and I have done this for a number of years, everywhere we have been stationed together, and we both look forward to this.”
JBSA DFACs are used to serving thousands of meals per day and are instrumental in meeting mission readiness and lifting spirits, whether during the challenges of COVID-19 in the last couple of years or over the holidays. DFAC staff took special care to make Thanksgiving special for Soldiers by providing an impressive feast that consisted of healthy servings of turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, yams, macaroni and cheese, vegetables, yeast rolls and many cakes and pies. More than 1,400 MEDCoE trainees were served at Slagle DFAC and more than1,600 at Rocco DFAC. Staff also decorated the facilities with inviting seasonal displays, including an ice sculpture.
“This is our Super Bowl for the year,” James Brooks, the Installation Food Service Manager at Fort Sam Houston, JBSA, said. “We go all out for the military members to make sure they get a good meal and feel at home.”
Charpentier said going to all of the extra efforts for the meal is important for Soldiers.
“For the majority of Soldiers, not only is this the first time they have been away from home,” Charpentier explained, “for many of them, this is the first holiday that they had to be away from home.”
While Soldiers are committed to their training and understand the sacrifice of their service, for some it can be lonely being away.
Pvt. Drew Burton of West Virginia said he was having a particularly hard time with the separation since he is in a more restrictive phase of his 68W Combat Medic training. He and his battle buddy, Spc. Matthew Burgess of Virginia believes their spirits will be lifted once they get off-post privileges for their AIT class assigned to Company B, 232d Medical Training Battalion, 32d Medical Brigade.
Burgess, who came to MEDCoE after attending college at James Madison University, said it is not his first time away from home; it is his first holiday away.
“It is a little difficult,” Burgess said. “But I am thankful for the things we can control and am grateful to be here.”
Though the 32nd Medical Brigade is hosting dozens of Thanksgiving-themed events throughout the weekend, Burgess plans to spend his free time FaceTiming with friends and family, hanging out with his battle buddies, and venturing off base later this weekend when day passes are granted in the next phase of training.
LeMaster agrees that some Soldiers have a harder time over the holidays than others but believes unit cohesion and camaraderie can help to ease the hardship. “It's tough, but the Army becomes a family unto itself,” he said.
Charpentier believes that accepting that this could be the first of many holidays spent with their units sharing a holiday meal during their time in service is important for the young Soldiers just entering a life of service.
“As they move forward, the importance of being and bonding with that military family really builds ties,” Charpentier explained. “Shared hardships and shared meals are generally the two ways we bond together best as Soldiers.”
This year, the tradition seemed more meaningful after a temporary suspension in 2020 due to health concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread rates of transmissions. While leaders joined Soldiers at the DFACs, they could not serve the meals.
In recent months, the military and the nation have seen improved COVID-19 conditions with the use of masks and other health measures, along with the effective implementation of COVID-19 vaccines among military personnel, Civilian employees, and defense contractors. These gains allowed Joint Base San Antonio to lower the health protection condition, or HPCON, to Bravo. Once again, senior leaders could show their appreciation to their troops by serving the annual holiday meal.
Mission Green Tab, as it is called due to the green markings leaders used to wear on their uniforms, is just one of the Thanksgiving traditions at MEDCoE, collectively known as Operation Thanksgiving.
Other traditions, in which Soldiers are invited to the homes of the local community or attend a holiday meal hosted by Valero Energy Corporation, were canceled for a second year in a row amid concerns of community spread of COVID-19. During Mission Green Tab, leaders were able to pass out hundreds of gift cards donated by Valero to grateful Soldiers.
Pvt. Xiomara Cesareo from Florida said it felt surreal when asked about having senior leaders serving her meal.
“It gives a feeling that we’re all humans in this, that we’re all connected,” Cesareo said. “This is my first Thanksgiving away from home, and it’s hard thinking about what it means to be away. It’s a nice moment being with our battalion today.”
Charpentier believes the Soldiers will always remember how they have treated their first Thanksgiving away from home. “For many of them, it may be the first time they were served a meal by their leadership,” Charpentier said. “But hopefully it will not be their last.”