Not one soldier entered Harlem's third annual Feed-A-Soldier feast Tuesday without a hug from Mary Willcox.
Willcox's husband, John, spent 21 years in the military, so she knows exactly what the young soldiers, most of whom can't be with their families for Thanksgiving, are going through.
For Willcox, who retired as Harlem United Methodist Church's secretary after 31 years, the hugs are her way of making the Fort Gordon soldiers feel welcome and at home.
"That's what it's all about," Willcox said.
The city of Harlem, Harlem United Methodist and many residents put on the event, which included a lavish Thanksgiving meal for about 200 soldiers.
"It's one way of saying thank you for who you are and what you do," Mayor Scott Dean told the group. "Thank you for all your service and the freedom you provide."
Each soldier got a taste of Harlem and a feel for the city as two volunteers sat at each table to talk with soldiers.
Pvt. Matthew McDaniel, 18, of Alabama, said this isn't his first holiday away from his family, but that the huge meal helped make the holiday a little easier.
"I'm going to go home and fatten up for Christmas," McDaniel said, already looking forward to seeing his family in December.
Pvt. Amy Penn, 20, and Pfc. Rachael Turner, 21, both of Arkansas, said they enjoyed the meal.
"It's just like being at home," Turner said.
With all the food donated and prepared by volunteers, the feast was the city's way to show appreciation for what the soldiers do to ensure freedom and for them to enjoy a calm meal, said the Rev. Roger Vest, of Harlem United Methodist.
"If you go home hungry, it's your own fault," Vest said with a laugh as he encouraged soldiers to indulge in second and third helpings.
While feasting on turkey and dressing, and a table full of homemade desserts, the soldiers were treated to holiday carols from the church's youth choir.
The military men and women stood and applauded wildly after the choir's youthful rendition of God Bless the USA.
"I wanted to switch the tables on Harlem," Staff Sgt. Ramsey Flores, a Fort Gordon drill sergeant, said through the church loudspeaker. "I've been here two years and I've done a lot of things with the city of Harlem. They have always welcomed the soldiers out. So tonight I wanted to say thank you from all the soldiers. We appreciate it."
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