USO gives local community memorable Thanksgiving

22 Nov 2001 | Sgt. Sharon M. Allen

Service members' "home away from home", Jacksonville's United Service Organization (USO) hosted a Thanksgiving feast for those who could not make it home to their families and those who wanted to share the holiday with others.
More than 1,000 Marines and their families attended the event, enjoying 45 turkeys with all the trimmings, dessert and the company of more than 110 volunteers.

"I think it is really great, what they are doing here," said Pfc. Chad Plummer, a reservist from Los Angeles who arrived two days before Thanksgiving to attend a school at New River Air Station.  "It's a nice place for people to come when they are away from home.  The volunteers have given their time away from their families to give it to us, and I think that is really something."

Plummer said that he first learned about the USO at Marine Combat Training (MCT), and his instructors at New River briefed the students about the free dinner.  He and his friends decided to take advantage of the event, and the duty driver shuttled interested Marines to the Jacksonville USO.  While at the USO, Plummer and his fellow Marines also took advantage of the free phone calls home.  Although he could not physically be with his family for the holiday, he got to speak with his father and grandparents.

"I can't say enough about the volunteers," said retired Sgt. Maj. Matt Hardiman, who served 18 years as the USO director.  "This is a great operation with outstanding volunteer unity.  It's nice too see the tradition still alive.  We want people to know there is no rank at the USO.  We care about everyone."

Hardiman added that the USO is in need of volunteers, help and donations. During the time of need, the USO is called upon, but the organization also needs support during peacetime so they can continue to offer their services to military members.  Hardiman said he felt Joe Houle and Mike Rooney have been doing an outstanding job in keeping the USO heading in the right direction and keeping the doors open to all military members and their families.

The annual dinner fed a diverse group of people from single Marines, family members of deployed service members to retirees.  More than 200 care packages were prepared for units that had Marines and Sailors on duty for the holiday.

Although the event was a success, it could not be done without a support network of volunteers, sponsors and other supporters.  Different businesses donated food, supplied free phone calls, and donated money for the event.  New River Air Station, the School of Infantry and Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools chow halls roasted the turkeys.  Various units also helped set up tables and aided where ever they were needed. 

Some of the groups included Marines from the Staff Noncommissioned Officers' Academy, 2d Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, volunteers from the Soup Kitchen and the Naval Hospital's Chief Petty Officers' Association.  The Regiment of Retired Marines, "Ye Ole Corps of Dinosaurs", gathered at the USO just after the crack of dawn to carve the turkeys.  Retired Sgt. Maj. Joe Houle, interim USO executive director, said civilians with absolutely no affiliation to the military or the local bases came out to give their time to the community.

"We had more support than we knew what to do with for this event," said Houle who is also the director of the planned Marine Corps Museum of the Carolinas.  "We had put together a schedule to get everything done, and we were three hours ahead of schedule."

"The USO is our extended family," said Marion Goodman, a volunteer at the dinner and a native of Capleville, Tenn. who also brought her sister and brother-in-law from Casanova, Va.  "It's our home, so it is just natural for us to come down here and help.  The USO is military members home away from home.  It is the oldest building still in continued use by any USO.  They do wonderful things here."

Goodman said she and her husband, Col. Mark T. Goodman, came to the Jacksonville area for the first time in 1973.  With this being their fourth tour here, Goodman said they always went to the USO when they could not go home.  "We have found family here," she added.  "We like spending time with the younger Marines."

Although many units could not attend pre-dinner preparation, they brought their Marines down to the USO to enjoy the festivities.  Camp Geiger's camp guards were one group who attended in uniform, not leaving until their bellies were full and all had a good time.