As hundreds of hungry patrons entered the Freedom Inn Dining Facility on Thanksgiving Day, they were greeted by a changing line of officers and noncommissioned officers serving turkey, ham, gravy and all the fixings.
Stunned by the number of high-ranking officers scooping mashed potatoes, green beans, and baked mac and cheese, two young Soldiers returned to the food line with their smartphones to take their picture.
“I think it’s just really cool having officers serving us,” said Pfc. Justin Stannard of Army Student Detachment, 551st Signal Battalion. “They are willing to come here and serve us because we’re not home. That lifts our spirits.”
Wearing dress uniforms and tall chef hats, the senior leaders participated in the long-standing Army tradition of serving junior-ranked service members on Thanksgiving.
“This allows us to give thanks to the Soldiers and the families,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, chief of staff at U.S. Cyber Command, “This is my first time at Fort Meade, but I do this almost every year.”
The tradition, however, is not limited to the Army. Fogarty served Thanksgiving fare alongside Coast Guard Rear Adm. Kevin Lunday and Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Ryan Heritage, both of Cyber Command.
“The best place to be is with the troops on Thanksgiving,” Heritage said.
This year, a record-breaking 567 service members, military retirees, DoD civilians, family members and guests streamed through the Freedom Inn for a traditional Thanksgiving meal from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The facility featured a festive fall decor with skirted buffet tables.
“It’s thrilling,” said Melba Taylor, contract manager at the Freedom Inn. “We watched the place transform. It’s a good feeling. It’s one of the best things we do all year.”
Unlike typical meals at the Freedom Inn, Thanksgiving patrons are permitted to order any combination of entrees and return for seconds — all for $9.05.
The Thanksgiving feast included lobster and shrimp bisque, shrimp cocktail, roasted turkey, grilled T-bone steak, honey-glazed ham, garlic mashed potatoes, candied yams, vegetables, sparkling cider and egg nog.
Dessert ranged from bread pudding and red velvet cake to a variety of cupcakes and pies.
“We’ve been working since Sunday night, planning since August,” said Howard Mountain, project manager and chef for Son’s Quality Food for the Freedom Inn. “Here, they allow us to be a little more creative on Thanksgiving and do things most dining facilities can’t do.”
As in past years, the showstopper was three suckling pigs, each weighing 45 pounds and served whole with cherry tomatoes in their eyes. Mountain himself prepared and slow-cooked each of the pigs with a combination of steam and dry heat to keep them moist.
The pork went quickly.
“They demolished it!” said Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Rodwell L. Forbes, who carved pork slices beside his wife, Patricia. “They even wanted the skin.”
After serving the first shift, Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard dined with his wife, Lisa, and their 11-year-old daughter Sarah.
He didn’t hesitate when asked what foods he enjoyed. “Oh, my gosh — everything! It was all very good,” Rickard said. “They did an awesome job. The chefs are very talented.”
This wasn’t Rickard’s first time serving Soldiers on Thanksgiving. During his deployment last year, he served troops at a dining facility in Kabul.
“But this is far better, and it’s wonderful to be home with my family,” he said.
Taking his place in line, Col. Daniel G. Bonnichsen, commander of Fort Meade Medical Activity and Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center, served turkey, ham and steak.
“The steaks are really popular,” he said. “The Soldiers want everything; they fill up the entire plate. They’ve already been back for seconds.”
But, he said, manning the food line is not a chore. “It’s a simple way for us to give back to Soldiers and the military family members,” Bonnichsen said. “We enjoy it, it’s fun. It’s a way to get shoulder to shoulder and give these guys a break — those who serve Soldiers and families the meals every day.”
Sitting over a plate of vegetables and steak, retired Sgt. 1st Class Robert Drake took a spoonful of corn as he contemplated dessert.
“I’m working on the vegetables first and they’re almost gone,” said Drake, 91. “I was going to get dessert. I like dessert, but I don’t think I can eat anymore.”
Every year, the Glen Burnie resident celebrates Thanksgiving at the Freedom Inn. A combat veteran who served in Germany in the waning months of World War II, Drake worked as a civilian in the Army Readiness Program on Fort Meade from 1960-1983.
“I usually come here on Thanksgiving because I’m an old Soldier,” he said. “The food is always good, and I like the way they dress up when they serve. They’re all very polite.”
Drake chatted with another Soldier eating alone at his table, Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Smith of Fort Carson, Colo., who is taking a course at the Defense Information School.
“I was texting my wife and kids all morning and watched the Macy’s parade,” he said.
Though away from home, Smith, too, enjoyed the lavish meal.
“It was beautiful, and I got a good picture of the pig — pretty crazy looking,” he said. “It was really good. I tasted all the meats. I’m done.”
For Pfc. Anthony Zendejas, of the DINFOS Student Detachment, the good food was a bittersweet reminder of home.
“I’m feeling melancholy,” said Zendejas, whose family resides in Burbank, Calif. “I’m happy to be here. At the same time, I wish I could be with family. I just miss my mom. The food here brings back good memories.”
Fellow student Pvt. Edward Randolph of Fontana, Calif., said the camaraderie helped soothe the pain of being so far from home.
“I told them this morning it’s hard being away from family,” he said. “But this is our first year together and we’re creating a new family.”
For many retirees, Thanksgiving on Fort Meade is an annual tradition shared with family. Retired Master Sgt. Jose Rodriguez of Odenton and his wife, Theresa, have celebrated the holiday on post for 27 years.
“I want to be together with the military,” said Rodriguez, 87, a veteran of Vietnam and Korea who served 36 years. “And the food is wonderful.”
This year, the couple was joined by 11 family members, including relatives who traveled from Puerto Rico, Colorado and Pennsylvania.
“I’ve been coming every year since I married 15 years ago,” said their daughter-in-law Amesha Rodriguez of Millersville who attended with her husband, Jose Ramon, and their children: Kayla, Genesis and Jose.
“I love it,” she said. “The food is excellent and it makes my father-in-law happy.”
By Rona S. Hirsch, Assistant Editor