BAUMHOLDER, Germany - Baumholder Military Community Soldiers have more to be merry about this holiday season due to an annual event that brings military and local communities together.

Operation Good Cheer is a seasonal program pairing Soldiers with local Baumholder families, who open their homes to service members for Christmas. Prior to the holidays, Soldiers and host families became acquainted during a meet-and-greet event at the Panther's Den Dining Facility, Dec. 6.

Bernd Mai, Operation Good Cheer organizer and U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz Public Affairs community relations for Baumholder, began the program more than 30 years ago as a way to bring the BMC and the local community together. Although it was a popular annual program, it was paused for a few years when deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were ramped up in the early 2000s. When the military operations tempo became more manageable, local Baumholder families once again opened their doors to sponsor Soldiers for the holidays.

"The Operation Good Cheer program provides an opportunity for single Soldiers and those geographically separated from their families to experience German traditions firsthand," Mai said. "This year, we have 25 German families matched with 29 Soldiers."

During the meet-and-greet event, 16th Sustainment Brigade Commander Col. Michelle Donohue said, "We appreciate our hosts who will open their homes to our Soldiers. It means so much to Lt. Col. [Barry] Carter [5th Battalion 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment commander] and myself that our Soldiers who are away from their families get to spend time around Christmas with another family. We have such an amazing connection with the people of Baumholder and the Rheinland-Pfalz across all of the different communities. Thank you on behalf of the Soldiers of the 16 SB and the 5-7 ADA."

Jean Baptiste and Franziska Noel from Hermeskiel, Germany, will have a new face around the Christmas tree this year - Spc. Marquez Brown.

"We heard on the radio that they were searching for host families for American Soldiers over the Christmas holidays," Noel said. "I thought it sounded cool and wanted to do this."

The pair spoke about bringing Brown to the Trier Christmas market and experiencing the festive food and Glühwein, as well as showing him their holiday customs and traditions.

"I've never been to a Christmas market yet, but it sounds like fun," said the 16 SB Soldier from San Francisco. "I find things like that intriguing actually. I'm looking forward to the holidays."

Sgt. Tiffaney Giles, a cook with the 16 SB, will get a chance to sample some German holiday cuisine this year as a part of the Operation Good Cheer program.

"I'm looking forward to seeing their traditions and how they celebrate Christmas," said Giles, a Pontiac, Mich., native. "It will be a nice change to be away from the barracks and spend time with a family over the holidays."

After hearing about the program from her platoon sergeant, Giles signed up for Operation Good Cheer and will spend the holidays with a family in Monzingen this year.

"This is a great program," she said. "I've never been involved in anything like this before. I'm excited!"

Both Soldiers and families benefit from the interaction, Mai said.

"Young Soldiers, in particular, who are away from home for the first time and in a foreign country, won't feel so alone during the holidays," Mai explained. "They are taken into a family's home and get to experience a German Christmas with all its customs and traditions. The Soldier is given a piece of German culture, and at the same time, can convey the American culture to the host families, while demonstrating the human side of the military."

More than 4,600 miles from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., Spc. Deryk Keith Hopkins will be spending Christmas with a family in Kirschweiler.

Stationed in Germany for 18 months, Hopkins knows a bit about the culture from participating in a German football league and traveling with his unit, but one thing he hasn't experienced is a German Christmas.

"I want to see the similarities and differences in the way Americans and Germans celebrate the holidays," said Hopkins, a Soldier with the 317th Support Maintenance Company. "My dad was a Soldier stationed near Mainz several years ago. When I told him about the program, he saw that I had an opportunity to get away from the post and truly become immersed in another culture. He was very supportive and told me to keep him updated."

Hopkins will be a guest of the Werle and Hess family. Michaela Werle heard about the program on the radio while traveling with her family from Trier.

"We heard that they were looking for families to invite American Soldiers to their homes for the holidays," she said. "I've known Bernd Mai for 30 years, so I called him to sign up. This is such a nice program."

Werle plans to take Hopkins to Schauren first and the next day to her house in Kirschweiler.

"I thought it would be nicer to be with a little family, so it wouldn't be so overwhelming," she explained. "Not everyone in my family speaks English, so it may be difficult for him to understand at first. I told him when he leaves my house, he will speak fluent German and know all of the German Christmas songs."

Hopkins accepted his new task with a laugh, "It's a challenge!"

The successful meet-and-greet event wouldn't have been possible without the food donated by the Baumholder Community Spouses Club and the Atlantic Academy Rheinland Pfalz that provided gifts of Glühwein and chocolates for the participants to enjoy.

"I think when you look into the Soldiers' shining eyes, you will see it is a fantastic program," Mai said. "I hope the families and Soldiers will build lasting relationships in our communities for years to come."