As four young Soldiers celebrated their first Thanksgiving at Fort Meade, they shared memories of favorite home-cooked holiday dishes.
For Pvt. Caroline Schofer of Graham, N.C., it’s Grandma’s macaroni and cheese. For Pvt. Kelly Delamora of Houston, it’s tamales, a Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition in her home.
For Pvt. John Vincent of New Orleans, it’s crawfish boil with turkey. And for Pvt. Mathew Blas of Guam, it’s the wild pig that his family hunts in the jungles and roasts.
Despite their diverse backgrounds, these combat photography students at the Defense Information School are now creating new memories.
“I miss my family,” Schofer said. “But we are now family.”
The group was among the hundreds of service members, military retirees, DoD civilians, family members and guests who streamed through the Freedom Inn from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a traditional Thanksgiving with all the fixings.
“We heard that the food is good during the holidays, but I didn’t expect it to be this good,” Delamora said over dessert.
A record crowd of 604 people attended this year’s feast, said Melba Taylor, contract <FZ,1,0,80>manager for the Freedom Inn.
“It’s the reputation of Thanksgiving at Fort Meade,” she said.
The facility featured a fall décor and huge turkey ice sculpture. The lavish menu included three whole Kahlua Hawaiian pigs, 250 pounds of roast beef, 223 pounds of roast turkey, 78 pounds of honey-glazed spiral ham, 150 pounds of shrimp, 100 pounds of Alaskan crab legs and 25 pounds of cornbread for stuffing.
Diners also enjoyed garlic mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, collard greens, sparkling cider and egg nog. Desserts ranged from assorted pies and cupcakes to cheesecake and hot bread pudding.
nlike standard meals at the Freedom Inn, Thanksgiving patrons may order any combination of entrees and return for seconds — all for $9.05.
“Most installations won’t do the pig, won’t do the crab leg,” said Howard Mountain, former chef and project manager for the Freedom Inn who now works in operations for Son Quality Food. “But if you plan the entire year, you are able to have crab legs, the pigs. It’s all about planning and management. …
“The good thing about here is that the [Directorate of Logistics] allows us to be creative. This is the best dining hall for Thanksgiving, for sure.”
Led by Tom Allen, project manager for the Freedom Inn, the facility’s 17 staffers began preparations in August.
“It starts with figuring out how many people you’re going to feed and how many pounds you need for procurement,” said Allen, a retired Marine master sergeant. “We’ve been cooking since Sunday. These guys have been terrific. They went above and beyond.”
The pigs were slow-roasted since the evening before Thanksgiving in a 6-foot-tall combi oven, which combines steam and dry heat to keep the meat moist.
As the first batch of service members entered the Freedom Inn, they were greeted by Family Life Chaplain (Maj.) Dwayne Hughes, who gave the invocation.
“These folks are far from home, so it’s good to wish them a happy Thanksgiving,” Hughes said. “We appreciate what they do. Sometimes, it’s just a touch, a hello.”
Service members also were grateful to the changing line of senior officers and noncommissioned officers serving behind the counter.
Wearing dress uniforms and tall chef hats, the senior leaders took part in the long-standing Army tradition of serving junior-ranked service members on Thanksgiving.
“I didn’t know we would have high-ranking Soldiers serving us, the command sergeant major, even a general,” Blas said. “They could be home with their families. Instead, they’re here with their fellow Soldiers. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Serving on Thanksgiving was a family event for Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard. While he held up crab legs, his wife, Lisa, scooped vegetables, and their 12-year-old daughter Sarah handed out programs.
“Would you care for crab legs?” Rickard asked a service member passing by.
“That’s a hard yes – looks excellent,” responded Airman 1st Class Ryan Mancuso of the 336th Training Squadron, Detachment 2.
Mancuso made room on his plate beside the turkey and side dishes.
“I’m from Louisiana, so seafood is king,” said Mancuso, who grew up in Baton Rouge. “Our own version of stuffing is with seafood.”
This was the second Thanksgiving that Lt. Col. Gittipong Paruchabutr, commander of Headquarters Command Battalion, served the community at Fort Meade. He spooned out corn, string beans, potatoes and stuffing.
“We get to do it once a year,” he said. “It’s a great Army tradition.”
Paruchabutr and his wife later joined neighbors in Vienna, Va., for dinner.
“I put up two turkeys at 10 a.m.,” he said. “I enjoy cooking.”
Further down the line, Capt. Aaron Lawless of the 902nd Military Intelligence Group carved slices of roast beef, while Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Brian S. Cullen carved the remains of a whole pig.
All that was left was the red apple in its mouth.
“I’ve done this several years, but this is my first year serving here,” said Cullen, who celebrated later that day with his wife, Connie, and their two sons Edgar, 28, and Andrew, 26, who were visiting from Virginia. “This gives me a chance to give back to the Soldiers and to the community.”
Retired Col. Bert Rice, former director of transformation at Fort Meade, returned for Thanksgiving to take his place serving.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” he said. “For me, I get to come back and see a lot of my friends that come through. It’s good for the troops to see the leaders in a different way, serving in another way.”
After serving turkey and ham, Col. Bernie Koelsch, deputy director of the Defense Media Activity, joined his family in the atrium. Koelsch, his wife, Angela, and daughters Josephine, 16, and Sophia, 13, have celebrated Thanksgiving at the Freedom Inn for five years.
“The food is excellent, always excellent,” he said.
Tanya Marti, author of “Army Wives: The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage,” dined with her husband, Col. Michael Marti, an executive officer at the Pentagon, and their children Jack, 11, and Violet, 6.
“I’m an Army brat,” said Tanya Marti, whose father is a retired colonel. “My husband was deployed last year. We had a flat cardboard cutout of him.”
One of the “signs” of a military brat, she said, is “spending at least one holiday meal at the mess hall.”
“I think it’s an important message for kids to have because it’s an old Army tradition,” said Marti, who resides in Heritage Park. “You see your friends and neighbors, a mix of people celebrating the holiday together. And you don’t have to cook. The only downside — no leftovers for turkey sandwiches.”
But not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving with turkey, roast beef or ham. Jennifer Fierroz of Greenbelt filled her empty plate with crab legs.
“This is what I come for,” said Fierroz, wife of retired Sgt. Richard Fierroz. “I only come for the seafood. I’m not a meat eater.”
Retired Army Reserve Master Sgt. Veronica Looney, who worked at the Defense Information Systems Agency before retiring from the military in 2009, often celebrates the holiday at the Freedom Inn.
“If my family is not here, it’s nice to come here and not be alone,” said Looney, who resides in Beltsville. “It’s something I can look forward to and not stress over where I can be. It’s a godsend, very comforting.
“Everyone is friendly. The food is excellent — it’s consistent. The ham is terrific, and I love the bread pudding.”
Looney joined Robin Wrather, who has celebrated Thanksgiving at the Freedom Inn for at least three years. Wrather, who works at DISA, brought her cousin, nephew and cousin’s friend.
“We make it a family affair,” Wrather said. “It’s really, really good, worth every penny and then some.”
Among the more familiar faces in the atrium was retired Col. Jeremy Martin, former commandant of DINFOS.
“I’m absolutely enjoying this — the atmosphere, being with the troops, with the veterans, and their families,” said Martin, director of public affairs for Bell Helicopter in Washington, D.C.
Martin dined with his wife, Ava, and their son Jeremy, 28, and daughter Rachel, 21.
“We all come together on Thanksgiving. It’s our favorite holiday,” he said. “We love it here — and how wonderful the preparation of the foods always is. They have the best chefs in all the DoD.”
Former Garrison Commander Col. Brian P. Foley, who now works at the Pentagon, returned with his family as well.
“There is no better place than the dining facility on Fort Meade,” he said.