Lackland Air Force Base, Texas —
Temporary freedom for some Lackland basic trainees and technical school students was made possible Thanksgiving Day by local families who "adopted" them for a few hours, welcoming the Airmen into their homes for a home-cooked meal, phone use and football.
Under Operation Home-cooking, 2,823 Airmen were paired with 1,307 families for the day, affording the trainees a welcomed reminder of home.
"It was wonderful," said New York-native Airman Kareem Pore, who graduates from basic training today with the 331st Training Squadron. "It was a new experience. I'd never been with another family before on Thanksgiving."
Instead of the traditional turkey and stuffing dinner, Diana Vasquez, Airman Pore's adoptive Hispanic mother included tortillas, beef brisket, ham, burritos, and rice and beans in their Thanksgiving menu.
Airman Rashad Jones, an Atlanta native also graduating today from the 331st TRS, was adopted by Tomas and Marilyn McLaughlin, an Italian and Puerto Rican family, for Thanksgiving.
"It was a new experience to witness someone else's culture," said the 19-year-old. "They had less turkey, and more ham, chicken, beef brisket. ... And they danced - the salsa."
For the trainees, being temporarily free from the structure of basic training and the dominance of the training instructors was refreshing.
"In the type of situation we're in, we're not allowed to be around our families. But I immediately felt like I was part of their family, joining in the conversations. They didn't feel like strangers at all," said 22-year-old Airman Pore.
"I like the sense of being around family. ... It felt great that someone would let you into their home without knowing you. We sat down and starting talking. It was like we'd known each other for years," said Airman Jones.
"It was definitely a memorable experience," he continued. "It wasn't expected that we'd do something like this during BMT."
San Antonio District 4 City Councilman Richard Perez and his family sponsored three female Airmen for the holiday.
"They were very sweet, extremely intelligent, and committed to the Air Force and doing their job well," said the councilman, who took the Airmen to breakfast, a Meals on Wheels volunteer project and lunch at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center before returning to his home around 2 p.m.
This is the third year Councilman Perez's family has hosted Lackland Airmen.
Trainees in the third, fourth, fifth or sixth week of basic training, as well as technical training students, were eligible for adoption under Operation Homecooking.
In keeping with the trend, this year's request for Airmen exceeded Airmen availability, with all participating Airmen being sponsored within 14 days of the public request for hosts, according to Jim Steele, chief of the basic military training scheduling office.
"I feel this program is such an important program to Team Lackland and the surrounding community because of the tremendous support we receive each year.
"Keeping in the spirit of Thanksgiving, what better way for someone who may or may not be affiliated with the military to reach out and open up not only their homes, but their hearts to our fine young men and women who've stepped up to defend this great nation of ours," Mr. Steele said.
"It's important to support our men and women in uniform, especially when many are so far from home during this family-oriented holiday," he said. "I think it's a good program and I'm happy General Jones continued it. It ties the community nicely to the Air Force."
Brig. Gen. Darrell Jones is the commander of the 37th Training Wing.
To ensure the Airmen are going into safe environments, they are adopted out in same-sex pairs. The civilian participants undergo a verification process and are videotaped leaving the facility with the Airmen.
In the 30 years since Operation Homecook-ing has been in place on Lackland, there has never been a reported incident, according to Mr. Steele. There has been 100 percent accountability within one hour of the trainees' report-back time.