Unwrapping the Holiday Spirit on Army Bases

By Kim FerraroDecember 29, 2022

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Celebrating the holidays with family and friends, in a cozy environment infused with the aroma of home-baked cookies and sparkling with dazzling lights and a centerpiece tree, is a ritual many people take for granted. But for those who spend this special season on an Army base, this joyful tradition represents yet another sacrifice they make while serving their country.

Still, while there’s no place like home for the holidays, each year Santa’s helpers at military bases around the globe gleefully take on the challenge of re-creating its comforts.

One base where that’s apparent is Fort Campbell in Kentucky. “Any time we’re able to show our Soldiers and Families that they are valued is a special event for us,” says Melissa Schaffner, the chief of the Nonappropriated Funds Support Division.

The merriment begins early in December with the tree-lighting ceremony, which includes a crafts market, food trucks and Santa, arriving on a fire engine. For those who want to break a sweat in ostentatious style, there is an ugly-Christmassweater run, an event where Soldiers can also pick up a free holiday tree.

Service members’ children can choose from visits with Santa, craft activities, storytelling sessions and a Christmas Eve pancake breakfast, followed by bowling.

Residents and community groups in the surrounding neighborhoods delight in showing their appreciation for the troops, bringing gifts for Army Families and providing tickets to ice skating rinks and seasonal concerts. And the regional USO offers plenty of activities, such as a Santa’s Workshop, where participants make holiday gifts, and a Santa Paws event, at which pets get treats courtesy of the red-suited star of the season.

“These local partnerships truly make our military feel welcome and embraced, whether on post or off,” Schaffner says.

At the nation’s largest Army base, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, holiday highlights include tours of the base’s elaborately decorated historic homes, and the multiday toy drop, during which Soldiers give hundreds of toys to needy local residents and can then go for a thrilling airplane jump, according to Matt Visser, the base’s deputy director of public affairs. Giving back to those who selflessly forgo family gatherings in order to serve is a mission that leaders take seriously, he says. So each year, they invite Soldiers to spend Christmas Day in their homes to partake in a traditional meal and relaxing conversation. Another leadership priority is ensuring that all service members can spruce up their homes, so a base program provides hundreds of trees to Soldiers who cannot afford one.

Despite all the festivities, the December holidays can sometimes be tough for Soldiers who are single and have no family on base. That’s why Fort Campbell provides Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for them at the Warrior Cafe, an eatery and gaming center. “For Soldiers who are in the barracks without options to join Family or friends, the Warrior Zone is a place to spend time with others in similar circumstances,” Schaffner says. “Our goal is to provide a comfortable place where Soldiers can meet new friends and have a buddy to help prevent isolating behaviors that can lead to depression.”

Armed Services YMCA Fort Campbell also delivers a morale boost with activities including a program that provides transportation for junior Soldiers and their Families to go home for the holidays. “Our gift-card giveaway is always a hit and blesses families who otherwise would not be able to put gifts under the tree,” programs director Hillary Brewer says.

At Fort Bragg, single Soldiers who opt to stay in the barracks can gather in the dining hall for a feast of sumptuous treats such as lobster and steak, served to them by officers.

The goal of all these celebrations is to bring a sense of lightness to those who bear the constant physical and emotional burden of preparing to defend our country at any time. By participating in the pleasures of the season, Soldiers can reenergize both their bodies and minds, making them more resilient to tackle the critical duties that keep Americans safe.

As Visser notes, “As long as we are caring for people as we would our own family, they’re going to feel special, and it will be reflected in their service.”