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Scores of service members and their families ate Thanksgiving dinner at the United Services Organization Thursday. Many stayed to relax in the game room. Among them were Pfc. Tyler Scott, Pvt. Miguel Scott, Pvt. Emmanuel Rios, Pvt. Stephen Vasquez, Pfc. Jerry Limon, Pvt. Rudy Sanchez and Pfc. Manuel Vera III. The seven Marines all attend military occupational speciality school at Camp Johnson.

Photo by Heather M. Owens

USO serves up Thanksgiving cheer

4 Dec 2008 | Heather M. Owens

For those in the military, holiday celebrations cannot always be at home with mom and the proverbial apple pie. They may be stationed far from their families taking care of the mission, training, standing watch or defending the nation.

For that reason, the Jacksonville United Services Organization and the staff and volunteers who sustain it, provided a warm and delicious holiday meal to troops and military family members stationed in the Jacksonville area.

The volunteers take their mission of providing holiday cheer seriously, and with good reason. Many have been helped by the USO as well.

“In 1964, when I first came to Jacksonville, I came to this USO and I got a sandwich and a cup of coffee and a place to relax,” said Joe Houle, a retire Marine sergeant major.

Houle and his kitchen crew of retired Marines rose at the crack of dawn Thursday to bring a Thanksgiving meal with all of the fixings to their multitude of guests.

They got right down to business in a most efficient way.

“We mix our mashed potatoes with a drill and a paint stirrer,” said Houle, who has been volunteering at the USO each Thanksgiving since 1994 and is now in his 11th year of organizing the cooking crew.

And what an illustrious crew it is. Rick Puph, a retired lieutenant colonel, prepared the stuffing. Retired colonels Wayne Morris and John Kopka prepared the string beans, corn and gravy. Retired sergeants major Doug Berry, John Holmes, Ihor Sywanyk and Nick Irrera each had their specialties as did Stan Walker, a retired gunnery sergeant, and his wife Vicki and son Jordan.

“Jordan was our potato man today,” said Houle proudly, noting that the 15-year-old has been volunteering for several years now.

The feast was massive. The base dining facilities prepared 65 turkeys and Houle’s crew made five extra, four of them deep fried, for an impressive bounty of 70 turkeys. Half a pig and some ham rounded out the meat selections.

The shear amount of fixings was also impressive: 35 pans of dressing, 25 pans of potatoes, 20 pans of yams, rounded out with pan after pan of string beans and corn.

Dessert was also on grand scale. “There are so many desserts, you can’t count them,” said Houle.

The staff and volunteers covered the USO’s many pool tables and laid out all of the confections that community members baked and donated to the cause.

“I thank the community for their support because without their donations of funds and desserts, the oldest USO in the world wouldn’t be open today,” said Houle.

After the kitchen crew finished its preparations, many stayed to help additional volunteers serve food and clean up afterward.

“I bet we had 100 volunteers here today,” estimated Houle.

The Marines, sailors and military family members seemed to really appreciate the volunteer’s efforts.

Pvt. Jose Herrera, who attends military occupational specialty school at Camp Johnson, came to the meal with a couple of buddies.

“This was something delicious that I haven’t tasted in a long time,” he said. “I actually give (the volunteers) more of a ‘thank you’ than they give me for serving the country, because this is a lot of food for a lot of people.”

Pfc. Manuel Vera III and several fellow Marines arrived from California a day before Thanksgiving.

“I had fire watch. Someone said, ‘After you finish fire watch, come by the USO. There’s good food there.’ And it is good food. I’ve really enjoyed myself,” said Vera, who will also be starting MOS training soon. “They’re really helping out because there is nowhere else we can go. They are really doing a good thing.”

Herrera and Vera were just two of the dozens of young Marines who relaxed in the USO’s game room after their meal. Others watched the large screen television or played pool (as the desserts were eaten and the coverings were removed from table after table).

Toward the end of the day, Tammy Price, Jacksonville USO director, said there had been a steady flow of visitors all day, though the exact number had not yet been tallied. “It has been more than last year which was a little more than 2,000 people,” she said.

Houle agreed the number of guests was up this year, and that felt good. “That’s what makes it all worth it, because you know there are troops out there that aren’t going to have a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving (unless we provide it),” he said. “We have so much to be thankful for and, if it wasn’t for these young men and women serving their country like they do, we would be speaking another language.”