FORT HUACHUCA — After COVID-19 did away with Adopt-A-Soldier last year, Tuesday’s event on post where families were paired with the soldiers they’ll have over for Thanksgiving Day festivities was filled with more excitement and anticipation than waiting for the turkey to come out of the oven.

Members of at least 38 families filed into the Eifler Fitness Center on the installation early Tuesday evening, excited to meet the soldiers they had signed up to “adopt” for one day.

Army officials said 134 soldiers would be leaving the installation to celebrate turkey day with a family. The soldiers are allowed off post between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

The popular Adopt-A-Soldier program, which took off several years ago, pairs up soldiers who cannot go home for the holiday with local families who treat them to a meal, companionship and some time away from the barracks in the absence of the soldiers’ loved ones.

The soldiers and families are assigned and meet up for the first time at the Adopt-a-Soldier event at the gym. Families are able to volunteer their homes and kitchens for a Thanksgiving celebration where they can host two or more soldiers.

The reason families are asked to host a minimum of two soldiers is because every soldier must have a battle buddy, said Army spokeswoman Tanja Linton.

Before they met their host families, the soldiers were given some ground rules by Army Chaplain Major Jameson Williams: Be respectful, dress nicely and no booze.

The Netto family of Sierra Vista took on 12. It’s at least the sixth time they participate in Adopt-A-Soldier and this is the largest group they’ve hosted so far.

“That’s mainly how many vehicle seats we have to bring them home in,” said Bruce Netto, who retired from the Army at Fort Huachuca in 2015. “We’ll pick them up, take them home and treat them to a good dinner.

“We’ll do whatever they want to do.”

As he spoke, his wife, Kimberly Netto, asked the soldiers their ages. Most were 18 or 19. One was 21.

“You’re all technically my children,” said Kimberly Netto.

She then went on to describe the massive spread she has planned for the big day. She told them, “Come hungry.”

“We love having them,” she said of hosting the soldiers. “We have a blast.”

Across the way from the Nettos and their dozen soldiers was Adopt-A-Soldier newcomer Robert Turner, also of Sierra Vista. Turner will be hosting two soldiers, 18-year-old Kyle Lowder and 19-year-old Daniel Ruehmer.

The teens, who met in basic training, joined the Army six months ago and it’s their first time away from family on a holiday.

Turner, who has worked on post, said he had been communicating with Ruehmer and the soldier’s mother for a while now.

“His mother had contacted my wife about buying a bicycle, and I volunteered to deliver it,” Turner said. “It was for his birthday.”

Turner and Ruehmer became fast friends. When Turner decided to get involved in Adopt-A-Soldier, he was paired with Ruehmer, of Wisconsin, and Lowder, of Texas.

“These are my guys,” Turner said about the two soldiers.