SIERRA VISTA — Not everyone gets to go home for Thanksgiving to be with their family.
And not every family has loved ones living at home to share the holiday.
Like the U.S. Army soldiers at Fort Huachuca and Mary Martinez of Hereford, whose eight adult children are scattered around the country serving in different branches of the military.
But thanks to the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade’s Adopt-A-Soldier program — which pairs up soldiers who cannot go home for the holiday with local families who treat them to a Thanksgiving feast, companionship and time away from the barracks — the popular program has become one of the area’s most beloved Thanksgiving traditions.
It’s the ninth year the fort has hosted the Adopt-A-Soldier program.
It’s also about the special kindness of Sierra Vista families who have stepped in to share Thanksgiving Day traditions with soldiers they have never met before by opening their collective doors and kitchens — as well as their hearts — to their “adoptive” servicemen and women.
“I have a house full of food waiting for them,” said Martinez, who is hosting soldiers formally for the first time. “When my ex-husband was in the military, I made him go into the barracks, grab as many soldiers as he could and take them back to our home for Thanksgiving.
“Now my kids are all grown, serving their country far from here. So for me, having an empty house and waiting to meet my soldiers is almost like a real adoption. As a patriot, you just want to hear their stories and why they chose the military.
“And believe me, they’re taking a lot of food back to the barracks afterwards.”
Scores of families and individuals who signed up to host soldiers this Thanksgiving filled a half section of bleachers during a meet-and-greet gathering at Eifler Gym Nov. 22 as they waited to be paired with their Thanksgiving Day soldiers. Those who registered are required to host two or more soldiers between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. since each soldier must have a battle buddy, said Army spokeswoman Tanja Linton.
“It’s been really neat being a part of this and seeing how this kind of event has unfolded,” said 111th Military Intelligence Brigade Chaplain Richard Hill, who was helping coordinate logistics during the meet-and-greet event. It was the first time in Hill’s military career being part of an Adopt-A-Soldier program.
“We’re well over capacity for soldiers who signed up, which means we have more host families than soldiers this year,” he said. “I’ve never had so many phone calls since I’ve been on base like I had last week about the program. It shows what a great response the program has been for the community.”
As a long queue of soldiers began lining up at tables to register for the program, Hill said more than 80 servicemen and women had already signed up. But as he scanned the line of soldiers spilling out into the gym’s hallway, he said he expected that number to rise considerably.
Last year, Army officials said 134 soldiers left the installation to celebrate turkey day with families.
“The program forms a better relationship with the community, and I hope it will be a great holiday experience for everyone,” Cochise County native Col. Brendon Dever told the group gathered in the gym. “But do not forget that we are on 24/7 duty.”
For many host families who signed up for the program, the anticipation of being paired with soldiers was almost as exciting as waiting for the turkey in the oven.
Like Manya Orsi, who has worked at the USO on base since it opened. Soldiers always know she’s there the moment they walk in, she said, because of the mouthwatering smells coming from the kitchen, prompting many to say that “grandma’s cooking again.”
“I’d take all of them home if I could,” said Orsi, who is affectionately known on base as “USO Grandma.” “I could feed 30 if I had to. I got ham, I got turkey, I got six pies and enough food to feed a herd of soldiers.
“I just love ‘em all like they’re my own children.”