BAUMHOLDER, Germany -- Soldiers assigned to units in the Baumholder Military Community and Kaiserslautern will get an extra dose of goodwill and holiday spirit in the local community thanks to the Operation Good Cheer program.

The seasonal program pairs Soldiers with local German families who invite them to spend time at their homes over the holidays. Soldiers and families met for the first time at the Panther's Den Dining Facility to learn about each other, Dec. 7.

The partnership program began more than 30 years ago, but was halted in 2005 due to an increase in military operations tempo and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was resumed 10 years later and continued to be a success with 13 Soldiers and 13 families participating in 2016 and more than doubling the amount this year with 27 families and 31 Soldiers, said Bernd Mai, event organizer and U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz community relations.

"Celebrating Christmas alone in a foreign country must be one of the worst things imaginable," Mai explained. "So the program offers these Soldiers a chance to celebrate the Christmas holidays in a family atmosphere, while affording a unique opportunity for Soldiers away from home to experience a different culture and create new friendships."

News about the program spread over the years, Mai said, and several host nation families began calling as early as summer about participating in Operation Good Cheer.

"It is a cultural exchange for both sides -- U.S. and host-nation families. Not only families from Baumholder take part, but also Saarland, Kaiserslautern, Bad Kreuznach and even the Rhein River, Bad Breisig and the Eifel regions have shown interest in the program," Mai said.

For program participant Private 1st Class Gabriel Glasser, this is his first time in Germany.
"This is my first duty station," said Glasser, with 720th Explosives Ordnance Disposal. "So far, I like living in Germany. It's a lot of fun here, and the people are friendly."

Being here only six months, Glasser said he wanted to learn more about German life. So when the opportunity came to sign up for the program, he didn't hesitate.

"Since I arrived, I've spent most of my time getting to know the Baumholder area," said the Pismo Beach, Calif., native. "I want to learn about the local holiday traditions and get to know the German people and their customs."

Glasser is paired up with the Kohler-Kreuz family from the village of Bliesen, Sankt Wendel, 30 kilometers southeast of Baumholder. This is a first for their family as well.

"This is the first time we've participated in Operation Good Cheer," said Birgit Kohler-Kreuz. "My mother read about it in the newspaper and told us that it would be something interesting for us to do."

Kohler-Kreuz said her family will celebrate the holiday like they do every year with a holiday gathering with one extra family member -- Glasser.

"It will be nice to show him some of the differences in traditions between the U.S. and Germany," said Ines Kreuz, Birgit's daughter. "We celebrate on Christmas Eve, which is traditionally a big event in Germany. It's not like the U.S., where they celebrate on Christmas Day."

So Glasser will enjoy Christmas Eve with the Kohler-Kreuz family, which will include dinner, presents and camaraderie.

"This is a great way to get to know people," Kreuz said. "And the people who are participating are people who are interested in doing this, which I think is great."

Joachim Sema from Pirmasens will host Spc. Raymond Kankoski with 5-7 Air Defense Artillery over the holidays. Sema, who heard about the program from a local radio station, drove almost 50 miles to participate in the program.

"I think it's a good idea," Sema said. "I think this is a good program to make Soldiers that are away from home happy during the holidays."

Kankoski said he joined the program because, "it seemed like a good opportunity to meet people in the local community." Being away from his home and brother in Pittsburg is difficult over the holidays, but he said he's looking forward to some home-cooked German food and enjoying the Sema Family's company.

Sema, his wife, Andrea, and three sons will welcome Kankoski to their home during the holidays and share traditions.

"He will be gaining three more brothers over the holiday," said Sema, who sees fewer Soldiers in Pirmasens since they began closing the Army depot. "This program is a good way to keep in contact with Soldiers," he said.

Overall Kankoski said he's excited about the program and meeting the rest of the Sema family.
"I appreciate them opening their home to me," the specialist said. "This will be a good reminder of home."

Baumholder Deputy Garrison Manager, Debra Jordan, said she was excited to see so many families and Soldiers participating in this year's holiday program.

"Thank you to our German families for opening up your homes to provide a wonderful opportunity and experience for our Soldiers," Jordan said. "And to all our Soldiers, I just want to say thank you for being open to the idea of broadening your horizons and for representing the Army and U.S. military by agreeing to be ambassadors as you enter their homes."

Programs like Operation Good Cheer continue to strengthen the relationship between U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz, Baumholder Military Community and its host-nation neighbors, families and friends, Jordan said.

"From the bottom of my heart, this is the season to come together to share and care for one another. It is also the season to make new friends, and I am certain that with our Operation Good Cheer program, it will be the opportunity to do that," she said.

As a former soldier, Mai said he knew how it felt being away from home during this time of the year and was happy these Soldiers could experience the comforts of home, while learning more about German culture.

"Seeing the happy faces of the Soldiers and host nation families and hearing their spirited conversations at the pre-meeting makes me happy. These Soldiers are provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I'm glad for every Soldier who takes this chance," he concluded.