MANHATTAN, Kan. - More than 1,100 military Families milled around the Kaw Valley Rodeo at Cico Park in Manhattan, and grabbed free dinner under the white tent July 22, as part of the rodeo's Military Appreciation Night.

"I heard about the free dinner at the rodeo through my Family Readiness Group and thought it would be a great event to take my kids for some summer fun, rides and lots of laughter," said Heather Filipunas, a Fort Riley military spouse.

The free tickets, which were good for dinner and admission to the rodeo, were available through the unit FRGs, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and Fort Riley's Information, Ticketing and Referral office.

Bevin Landrum, military Liaison officer for the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, said there was enough food to feed 500 to 600 people.

"This is the earliest, largest crowd we've had. They (the Families) were ready and that's awesome," she said. "I don't know if it's because Soldiers are deployed that more families showed up this year or because a lot of Soldiers just got back. It seems to be pretty even."

A total of 1,183 free tickets were given away, and Landrum said she thinks they could have given away even more if there were more funds for the event.

"Next year's goal is 1,500 tickets," she said.

Landrum said the free military appreciation dinner is even more important this year because of Riley County and Fort Riley's covenant signing. The free dinner and rodeo admission was just one way Riley County shows its support for the post, she said.

Karen McCulloh, Riley County commissioner, spoke briefly during the appreciation dinner, and told guests the commission underwrites the rodeo using taxpayer's money.

"It's a great use of tax dollars," she said, adding military Soldiers and Families are always welcome in Riley County.

Lyle Butler, president of the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, said the military is an important part of the community.

"We understand the sacrifice the Family and Soldiers have to make, and we try to do things to give back to folks," he said.

Butler said the rodeo and the military appreciation dinner are the highlight of the year, and businesses support it.

"For the Families that get left behind, this is one small way to give back," he said.

Businesses throughout Riley County donate money so the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and City of Manhattan can purchase tickets to give to the military Families.

Along with a host of business supporters, Mike Shilling and his wife, Diane, also were there to show their support to the military Families by donating additional funds needed for more last-minute tickets.

"We enjoy all the people from Fort Riley, and encourage people to take part in community events," Diane Shilling said.

Staff Sgt. Justin Takach, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, attended the military dinner with his wife, Kristin, and 2-year-old daughter, Addison.

"We got the free tickets from the unit, and we've never been before. We're looking forward to the horses," Kristin Takach said. "It's awesome. I didn't have to cook."

Julianna and Olivia Stewart, and their mother, Stephanie, said they enjoyed the barbeque served at the dinner.

"It was free to come and the girls wanted to see the horses," Stephanie said.

The Commanding Generals Mounted Color Guard rode in the opening ceremony of the rodeo. Sgt. Michael Morris, a trooper with the CGMCG, led the line of four horses into the arena for a trip around the ring,before lining up in the middle of the arena for the singing of the National Anthem.