FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Instead of gathering around a table for Thanksgiving this year, a handful of Fort Drum Families spent the holiday on the streets of New York City, trading street vendor hot dogs for a turkey dinner, navigating to famous Manhattan sites and attending one of the most celebrated parades of the year.

Whether they were returning visitors or first-time guests in the Big Apple, they all made the six-hour trek from the North Country to the city for one reason -- to experience the 85th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from a sidewalk view.

The parade, which showcased more than 40 balloon creations, 27 floats, 800 clowns and 1,600 cheerleaders, kicked off at 9 a.m. Those from the Fort Drum group who wanted a good spot were lined up and down the sidewalks of 5th Avenue as early as 7 a.m. that day.

Stars who rode floats included Mary J. Blige, Neil Diamond, Cee Lo Green, Scotty McCreery from American Idol and the Muppets of Sesame Street, while Sonic the Hedgehog, Julius the Sock Monkey and Mickey Mouse took to the sky, floating along Central Park West.

The parade would not have been complete without a visit from the most-famous parade character, Santa Claus, who sat atop his sleigh, accompanied by Mrs. Claus.

"I'm here for my wife, instead of at home watching the Cowboys play," noted Spc. Robert Rhodes, a Soldier with 210th Brigade Support Battalion. For his wife, Kimberly, this was her first time visiting the city.

Members of the Fort Drum group took in other sights after the parade ended, including Times Square and the Toys "R" Us store, where the children rode the indoor Ferris wheel.
One of the final stops of the day was an unplanned visit to the 9/11 Memorial, which opened in September.

The memorial stands as a national tribute of remembrance, honoring the men, women and children killed in the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, in a field near Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon, and during the bombing of the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

Those wishing to visit the memorial usually must make a reservation online, but the site was opened to military members, emergency services and law enforcement personnel, and their families.

"I didn't think we would be able to see (the memorial). I would say that was more important to me than the parade," noted Kathy Lease, whose husband, Capt. Lucas Lease, serves with 277th Aviation Support Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.

She attended the trip with her son, Aaron, 7, who told her while they were at the memorial, "I'm sad for all the people," when he noticed a loved one placing a flower by a name. Lease said she explained to Aaron the significance of the memorial and why the actions that caused the memorial to be created directly affect their Family because his dad is a Soldier.

Others, like the Rhodes Family, were touched by what they saw at the memorial.

"For me, at first I was getting butterflies before we entered the memorial. Once we got in (the memorial), I remembered where I was at," Kimberly Rhodes explained. "Seeing all the people who were affected is life-changing."

Robert Rhodes said he remembered when his father was stationed with the Coast Guard and the twin towers were still standing.

"From the ferry, you could see the twin towers. Now that they're not here, it's not quite the same," he said. "The memorial makes it feel different, like something is missing."
"For me, the memorial ended up being a bigger attraction than the parade," Lease noted.

"I think everyone who is stationed at Fort Drum should visit here. This is part of their service," Robert Rhodes added.

For more information or to reserve a pass to the 9/11 Memorial may visit
Fort Drum's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation sponsored the three-day trip, departing here Nov. 23 and returning Friday. FMWR hosts trips to New York City periodically throughout the year.

The next FMWR-sponsored trip is to Niagara Falls, Dec. 31 to Jan. 1. The cost is $75 per person, and the deadline to sign up is Dec. 16. For more information, call 772-8222.