BAUMHOLDER, Germany - The Baumholder Military Community's Operation Good Cheer program has been placing installation single Soldiers with local families at Christmas time since 1974.

While this type of community relations program was common through Army posts across Germany in those days and through the '80s and 90's, U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz is the last to maintain this relationship-building tradition.

This year, the Panther's Den Dining Facility on Smith Barracks hosted 30 Soldiers Dec. 5 who signed up for the program and 25 local community families who invited the Soldiers assigned to them into their homes for the holidays.

"Operation Good Cheer is one of the best community relations events the garrison does every year," said Col. Jason Edwards, garrison commander. "Showing our partnership with the local communities, and mixing in some holiday spirit, is what the holidays are all about."

Based on pre-filled questionnaires, the Soldiers were matched to their host family, many with children in attendance. The combined groups sat at dining tables in the DFAC for about two hours, getting to know each other.

Sgt. Eric Espino, 421st Medical Battalion, said he signed up for Operation Good Cheer because he was part of a similar program when he was in Advanced Individual Training several years ago.

"I jumped on this immediately, I was super excited to meet some strangers, go to their house and eat all their food," he laughed.

The loudest laugh at the table came from Karla Doyle of Weierbach, who, along with her sister, Annerose Severloh and Annerose's 24 year-old son, Moris Simon, participated in the event to provide some holiday hospitality to a single soldier.

"The first thing we're going to do is feed him a bunch of German stuff for Christmas," Doyle said. "We might try to go to some Christmas Markets before that and then, if he wants to come back to this crazy family, he can join us any time until he has to go home."

Operation Good Cheer was briefly stopped in 2005 because deployments from the BMC didn't leave many single Soldiers available for the program, according to Bernd Mai, Baumholder Public Affairs Specialist and program manager who restarted it in 2006.

The program is popular. Its now one-of-a-kind status is unique from the days of 300,000 troops in Europe. Families from hours away in locations like Mainz, Stuttgart, Koblenz and Bad Kreuznach volunteer to host Baumholder Soldiers during the holidays. Unfortunately, the transportation logistics and more than enough local volunteer families usually preclude out-of-area participation.

"Including this year, we have put just over 1,400 Soldiers with almost 1,100 German families since the beginning of the program," Mai said. "Some Soldiers and families just have Christmas dinner, some become life-long friends."

Doyle's husband was in the U.S. Army and she last participated in an Operation Good Cheer-like event in 1980. She said she just felt the time was right to do it again so, she enlisted the help of her sister and nephew.

"The Soldiers don't have any family here," said Severloh. "He had to leave his family and we're two grandmas, so we can take the young people and spoil them rotten then send them home."

"They're apparently going to be my personal tour guides while I'm here," Espino said. "I really hope to make these long-term friendships while I'm here in Germany and, hopefully, keep them long after I leave. I'm super excited."

Simon hasn't had much interaction with Americans, and those he has talked to have been mostly through video games. He said he's very interested in learning more about America through Espino.

"It's a completely different person. It's a completely different mentality," Simon said. "It's a completely different culture and it will be really exciting to get to know America through him."

The cultural exchange program meet-and-greet/placement event at the DFAC drew the interest of several German media outlets - with reporters from television, radio and newspaper agencies all in attendance to publicize the Operation Good Cheer partnership. Also promoting the annual friendship program at the event was the Baumholder Union Community Mayor, Bernd Alsfasser, and city officials.

The non-commissioned officer side of Espino knows there are single Soldiers, who didn't sign up for Operation Good Cheer, who will be sitting alone in their barracks on Christmas. He said there's no reason for that when they could take advantage of the garrison program.

"I would've recommended this to any single Soldier even before I met this family," Espino said. "The opportunity to get to meet and enjoy the holidays with..."

"You belong to us until you leave Germany," Doyle interrupted as the table erupted in laughter.