By Staff Sgt. Kelly S Carlton (Leonard Wood)December 17, 2015
Soldiers in training who don't go home during Fort Leonard Wood's annual two-week Holiday Block Leave will have a diversified program of activities to keep them occupied.
The USO and Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, along with cadre from Company D, 787th Military Police Battalion, 14th Military Police Brigade, will support more than 260 Soldiers and Marines.
"We serve full meals every day we're open. We have community supporters catering meals," Kelly Gist, center director, Fort Leonard Wood USO Club said. "These vendors always support us, and this is their way of giving back."
Gist said one supporter has volunteered to help with the Christmas dinner, traditionally served on Christmas Eve.
"We want everyone at one table, so it's one big Family," Gist said. "Everything will be home cooked -- all of the turkeys, mashed potatoes and stuffing. We do this on Christmas Eve, because on Christmas Day, they get their meal at the dining facility."
"This year, one of our vendors is stepping up, and they'll do all of the turkeys and stuffing for the meal. It's going to save us about 36 hours of cooking, thankfully."
Prior to the big meal, troops have the opportunity to enjoy FMWR-sponsored events like a bowling and pizza party at Daugherty Bowling Center and several shopping trips around Missouri, before the USO hands out gifts on Christmas morning.
"When they come Christmas morning, everyone will be greeted with a huge gift bag full of gifts from our donors in St. Louis. There is a special surprise in this year's bags," Gist said.
Gist said other highlights include a trip to the Veterans Administration home, a chance to attend a professional football game in Kansas City, Missouri; Miss Missouri will be stopping by to serve a meal, and therapy dogs are also present.
"We're going to have therapy dogs come throughout the entire time. We always make sure we have therapy dogs in the USO, because it gives a different type of comfort," she said.
When the Soldiers aren't at the USO or traveling to an event, they are with the holdover company. This collective company brings together Soldiers who are at different stages in their military training known as phases, and the cadre have seen a benefit.
"There is a new group of trainees who arrived this week. We'll have 'zero day,' week-one Basic Combat Training, all the way to those who are ready to graduate advance individual training but didn't want to take leave," said Master Sgt. Robert Petersen, operations noncommissioned officer in charge, 787th MP Bn.
"So a red-phase private (in the first three weeks of BCT) will enjoy the pass privileges that a private at the latter end of AIT enjoys," Petersen said. "All of the Soldiers will continue to do daily baseline Physical Readiness Training."
Petersen said it's important to maintain that baseline, because the new privates haven't been as exposed to the Army values like the more advanced Soldiers.
"This becomes a unique situation, because the drill sergeants have a secondary source to tap into to help teach. Soldiers who are further along in their training can be a secondary mouthpiece if you will, of the drill sergeants to reinforce those Army Values that the younger kids haven't received yet," Petersen said.
The Marines will participate in the HBL program for the second year.
"Last year, the Marine Corps started to work closely with us, and it worked out really well," Conny Obermuller, FMWR installation wide event coordinator, said.
"The post Better Opportunities for Single Service members president, Marine Sgt. Jose Roque, was running a Holiday Block Leave program for the Marines, so we just started coordinating together. I say the more the merrier," she added.
Roque, an instructor for motor transport operators at the U.S. Marine Corps Detachment, is happy to be part of HBL.
"I will do whatever it takes to make the holiday season enjoyable, especially since Marines are far away from home," he said. "During HBL, these Marines are my No. 1 priority, and I am here for them 110 percent."
Soldiers and Marines will spend a lot of time at the USO during the 17 days when these service members are virtually the only troops in training on post.
"Our biggest goal is to make sure there is something every single day for the troops to do," Gist said. "We don't want them to be bored or alone in their barracks. It's a vital period where we need to make sure they are engaging, and these events kind of help us keep an eye on them."
Gist affectionately calls the troops who enter into the USO her "guys."
"We just want to make it as close to home as possible. There are a lot of moments where the 'guys' will just come up and want to say 'thank you' or ask to give you a hug," she said.
Gist said she has been asked why, year after year, she gives up her holidays.
"I don't consider this work, it's my passion. You can't have this job without the passion," Gist said. "We always take them under our wings. Whatever they need, we try to make it happen. We try so hard to wrap our arms around all of them."