DOVER — There was a void in Bob Reese’s life during the last holiday season, when his annual Feed the Troops event at Dover Air Force Base had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, on Tuesday, Mr. Reese and his army of around 70 volunteers gathered in an aircraft hangar once more and served up 52 turkeys — or 884 pounds of meat — and all of the trimmings to hungry airmen, most of whom will not get the opportunity to go home for Christmas.
The 17th annual Feed the Troops event, which consisted of separate lunch and dinner servings, easily fed more than double the 300 or so airmen who enjoyed the first such holiday meal in a hangar at Dover AFB 18 years ago.
“It really feels great to be out here doing this,” said Mr. Reese, a retired Air Force Reserve technician master sergeant who is the founder and organizer of the annual event. “It’s amazing how a one-year gap doesn’t stop the people from supporting us.
“Everybody does really great. A lot of people came forward. We have a group of folks that formed a team, and our team has folks from Pay it Forward, and we have the Veterans United Outreach of Delaware group, Farm Credit … and we’ve got those of us that don’t belong to anything, like me. We just all pull together.”
“There’s lots of times I take a back seat and do things behind the scenes, but because what (these airmen) do here, this is where I served at — this is my stomping grounds. So, to give back to our brothers and sisters in uniform, you can’t ask for a better event. It’s a pleasure to seat them and meet them.”
There was a steady stream of airmen in camouflage loading up their plates and enjoying some of the tasty offerings of the holidays. There were singers on hand singing Christmas carols, beauty queens and even Santa Claus himself.
“I am very appreciative of this event personally,” Airman First Class J’Anthony Dunson said. “I wasn’t even expecting it, honestly, but I’m very thankful for it.
“The food was amazing and I’m just happy that I got to eat such a wonderful dinner today. The food was really delightful. It was well put together and there’s a really nice spirit out here.”
Samantha Wadsworth, from Harrington, was a member of one of four agencies from State Farm who volunteered to help out at the dinner.
“It’s been fantastic all day today. It’s definitely a privilege,” Ms. Wadsworth said. “I feel like we were able to help serve them the way they’ve served us, so it’s been very nice to be able to help them out in so many different ways, even if it’s just handing out food and saying, ‘Thank you.’ It’s an amazing privilege to have.”
She said they served up meals of turkeys, corn, green beans, sweet potatoes, bread and “cranberry sauce that went like nobody’s business … and the dessert table was loaded with all kinds of treats.”
Perhaps the most sentimental touch of the day came from handwritten letters and cards from children at area schools who wrote to the airmen and wished them all a happy holiday while thanking them for their service.
That was just the type of thing that Mr. Reese had on his mind when his idea for Feed the Troops came from a gesture from his parents almost 50 years ago.
“It’s just something that was handed down to me from my parents,” he said. “When I joined the Army in 1970 and I was at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and I lived in College Park, Maryland, my parents always ‘suggested’ that I might bring some of my friends home when I came home from leave, so I started.
“When I did (bring friends home) my parents did things like took us to dinner at restaurants or just plain cooked at home and let us stay there and we did whatever we wanted to do, my parents just helped us out. It was all-year ’round, it didn’t matter if it was a holiday.”
So, around 18 years ago, Mr. Reese was sitting around talking with some friends thinking back to his days in the military when the idea of Feed the Troops was born.
“Many years ago I was sitting around sharing the story with some of my partners and they said, ‘Why don’t we do that?,’” he said. “Well, you know the old theory that walls have ears … it started out with four of us and it turned out be the four of us and 20 or 30 people helped us out.”
The Feed the Troops dinner has grown to where it feeds more than 1,000 airmen during the holidays now.
“We started (Feed the Troops) with 17 turkeys some 17 years ago and (Tuesday) had 52 turkeys, most of them over 15 pounds,” said Mr. Reese. “After 39 years in the military and missing Christmas twice in Vietnam, I can respect the fact that (the airmen) can’t go home every year for Christmas or Thanksgiving.
“The biggest thanks I get out of doing this is when I see my brothers and sisters walk through that door, come down this line, and eat and smile and say, ‘Thank you.’ That’s all any of us want. There’s no other reason for me to be doing this other than to help these guys.”