It may not seem like there would be much difference between a military Thanksgiving and a civilian one. Many of the day’s traditions are the same -- turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, football.
But if you look closely, it’s unlikely you’ll find a family resemblance amongst the faces gathered at the dinner table.
For many military families, the closest they’ll get to the Thanksgivings they knew growing up is a phone call. They’ll miss out on Grandma’s Pumpkin Pie or Aunt Mary’s Secret Stuffing because they don’t have the time or money to travel “home.”
But they make up for it by surrounding themselves with the best resource a military family can have: good friends.
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Between two deployments and being stationed 1,000 miles from home, my husband hasn’t been with his extended family for Thanksgiving for 10 years. And so this year, his first as a civilian, that was his request: Thanksgiving with his family.
But we certainly didn’t spend the last three Thanksgivings at Fort Benning alone.
Like many who are in the military, we celebrated with friends, developed new traditions and made the best of the situation.
Melissa Harvel’s husband was stationed at Fort Benning for four years and during that time they never traveled home to North Carolina for Thanksgiving because they had more time at Christmas.
“We would have three or four families come together” for Thanksgiving, she said in a recent phone interview, adding that they also invited single soldiers who didn’t have anyone to spend the day with.
One year she said there were a few single soldiers she had never met before who came because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. They knew someone going to Harvel’s celebration and tagged along.
“(For) new (soldiers), it is an eye-opening experience if you’ve always had your family there and suddenly you don’t,” Harvel said. Inviting them into her group was a way of showing the new soldiers how familial military friendships become.
One reason Harvel said she enjoys spending the holiday with her friends is that while they “always think of most of our friends as family,” they don’t bicker like family.
She also enjoys sharing the cooking and cleaning responsibilities with other families, especially because preparing a full Thanksgiving meal for her three-person family “would be a waste” and not financial reasonable, she said.
Jennifer Parker, the Fort Benning Community Spouses Club president, said that she and her husband used to host single soldiers for Thanksgiving when they were stationed at Fort Polk, La., and Fort Bragg, N.C., but they don’t have the opportunity to do that here.
“I miss it,” she said. Adding that she’s always looking for people who need a place to go for the holiday.
But she said it’s mostly junior enlisted soldiers who really can’t afford to travel home for Thanksgiving and her husband doesn’t oversee many in that group. Unit first sergeants usually make sure their soldiers aren’t alone on the holiday.
“They generally take care of their own,” Parker said.
Now stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., Harvel said they won’t be traveling for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but plan to spend both holidays with friends they’ve reconnected with in their new location.
“We’ve been very blessed to be in the Army, to have this lifestyle and to know so many wonderful people,” she said.