JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas — People often say, “There is no place like home for the holidays.” This Thanksgiving, however, Soldiers found the next best thing on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Trainees assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence were among the 5,500 Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Guardsmen, retirees and civilians welcomed for the annual Thanksgiving meal in the Rocco and Slagle Dining Facilities.
James Butler, food service contract monitor, 802d Force Support Squadron, said his team of 200 food service workers take great pride in their obligation to bring a little bit of home to servicemembers on the day typically associated with home-cooked feasts.
"Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday for some,” said Butler. “Some of our servicemembers are thousands of miles from home, and this will possibly be the first time away from family and friends.”
His team was prepped, minutes before the doors opened at noon, to provide an epic meal with thousands of pounds of turkey, roast beef, ham and shrimp, complimented by plenty of mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, corn and sweet potatoes. They also prepared over 1,800 slices of pie and over 1,800 slices of cake for the expected crowds.
In addition to being nourished, Butler hoped his patrons got the chance to slow down, relax and even stop to watch some of the football games that were displayed on television screens at both dining facilities. Festive décor garnished elaborate food displays and DFAC pillars.
“It's a great feeling and sense of pride to see the delight in the servicemembers’ faces,” continued Butler. “The satisfaction of our Servicemembers is our number one priority."
MEDCoE Command Sergeant Major and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Commanding General, Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Laragione and his family were among several dozens of leaders who served lunch to Servicemembers on base, a time-honored tradition on Thanksgiving.
“I recall my first Thanksgiving away from home when I joined the Army was at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I had just graduated airborne school,” said Laragione. He remembers it being nice to go to the dining facility, where he was able to get all of the food he was accustomed to eating on Thanksgiving. “I don’t recall a lot of details, but I do remember getting to enjoy good food with a few of my battle buddies who were with me from AIT.”
Laragione graduated from AIT as a combat medic at Fort Sam over 27 years ago, in the very organization now under his responsibility. The son of a Navy corpsman, Laragione was raised in San Antonio, then Corpus Christi, Texas, since the age of five. He joined the Army 10 days after graduating from high school in Corpus in 1995.
The MEDCoE’s senior enlisted servicemember said he spent many holidays away from home while training, in support of stateside operations and during operational and combat deployments.
“I believe what made most of those separations bearable were the people that were right there with me,” said Laragione. “The Army becomes your family, and through shared adversity and experiences, you create bonds that are often unbreakable. As hard as it is to be away from home, with great teammates you make, wherever you are is a home away from home.”
For Pvt. 1st Class Bryce Blair, a 19-year-old trainee from Pennsylvania, this Thanksgiving was his first away from his family. He enlisted in the Army just after graduation, began basic combat training in August 2022 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and is beginning his fourth week in 68W Combat Medic AIT while assigned to the MEDCoE at Fort Sam.
When asked what he would be doing on Thanksgiving if he were still back home, Blair said he would be spending it gathered for a big meal with friends and family. “I do miss them a lot,” Blair said. “It’s my first Thanksgiving away from home, but I’m thankful for all of them, and I miss them a lot.”
Blair joined the Army to gain immediate experience in the medical field. He eventually wants to pursue higher-level medicine beyond his training as a combat medic, though he is taking it day by day and already learning a lot in the program.
When asked what traditions he may be missing the most on his first holiday season away from his family, Blair said, “I am definitely missing out on my mom’s turkey; she always has all the family over for Thanksgiving. She always makes the biggest meal for us, and it’s always delicious, so I am missing that. I’m hoping they make up for it here (at Slagle),” he added.
Pvt. First Class Bonnie Hill, a 22-year-old combat medic trainee from Kentucky was also missing her loved ones but remained in high spirits. “While I miss my mom, grandma, dad, siblings, and just my entire family, it’s pretty good to be here and see the camaraderie and everybody getting together and being happy for at least an hour,” said Hill.
Hill enlisted in the Army in March 2021 and has been at Fort Sam in training for nearly one year. Finished with the bulk of her strenuous medic training, after holiday block leave in December, she will take the Army Combat Fitness Test, participate in the Combat Medic Specialist Training Program culminating Field Training Exercise at Camp Bullis, followed by the pinning ceremony into the Army Medical Department Regiment, and graduation in January 2023.
“I have been here so long that Fort Sam is home, so going in and eating Thanksgiving lunch with my battles and my command team is just like eating at home,” explained Hill.
That home away from home feeling was exactly what Butler, Laragione and countless others on JBSA were trying to cultivate with the elaborate meal. Laragione remarked that the food, ambiance and attention to detail at the DFACs were even better than he remembered from his time assigned to MEDCoE as a trainee.
“I am thankful for the amazing dining facility and so proud of these leaders,” said Laragione. “I appreciate that leaders still come out and support our servicemembers who are away from home. I hope we can bring a little joy, a piece of home and a good meal to them while they are separated from their families.”
Blair, who will graduate AIT just before the holidays in 2023, loaded up his plate with piles of turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and desserts. He settled in with a dozen of his closest classmates at a table near a television broadcasting football. Nearby drill sergeants allowed a more leisurely meal than is typical for trainees.
“I have gotten as close to these guys as I can,” said Blair. He described the lifelong friendships he made with people he met in BCT and AIT that he already considers Family. “So it’s like I am surrounded, still, by people I am thankful for and that I do love. It’s a little different in the fact that they aren’t blood, but they are all Family at the end of the day.”
To learn more, visit the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence website.