Anyone who's served in the military knows what it's like to be away from family for extended periods of time – the sadness of missing loved ones and of missing milestone moments in their lives.
But those who have been deployed over the holidays know there's an extra pang of sadness involved. Your friends and family are gathering together, and you're absent. Sure, there's the phone, email, Facebook and webcams, but they are no substitute for being there in person. Legionnaires in Illinois understand this.
About 12 years ago, a Thanksgiving tradition started at Merle Guild Post 208 in Arlington Heights and later carried over to Morton Grove Post 134. Every Thanksgiving, the posts bring 50 recruits from Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago into their post homes for a full day of breakfast, dinner, entertainment and camaraderie.
"When you're in basic training, you're basically in lock down," says Legionnaire Casey Bachara, who was a part of the original event at Post 208 and carried it over to Post 134 when he transferred his membership. "This is really the first time they've been off base, and we want to make the most of it for them. We all served, and we know what it's like to be apart from your family this time of year. For many of these recruits, it's their first time away from home. We want to make it special for them."
Post 134 did that once again this year with help from the community. A bus donated by Cook County School Bus Inc., picked up the recruits early on Thanksgiving morning and brought them to the post where a table of pastries, fruits and other sweets, donated by the Legion family, friends and local merchants, awaited them. And Dean's donated milk, while Jewel-Osco donated water.
Also awaiting the recruits were a few computers for emailing friends and family, as well as a phone bank consisting of six telephones, provided by AT&T, with free long-distance and international calling all day. "We try to limit the first phone call for every recruit to 20 minutes so that everyone gets a chance to make a call," Bachara says. "After that, they can go back and use it again and again if they want."
A video gaming system and games were set up for the recruits to play; two movies – one usually an action movie, the other a comedy – were ready to play in separate rooms on large screens. Again, the equipment is donated by area businesses. It's a common theme for the event.
"This thing has really taken off, and the town has really gotten involved," Bachara says. "The bowling alley and movie theater open up for the recruits. People want to donate items. I actually have to turn away people who want to volunteer or we'd be running into each other all day."
A musician played guitar to entertain the recruits, who had sing-a-longs with him. And cheerleaders from the Arena Football League Chicago Rush showed up to meet with the recruits.
The day is capped with a full-blown turkey dinner, courtesy of Kappy's Restaurant & Pancake House, and served by the cheerleaders; desserts are provided by Costco and a local merchant. "And we serve (the recruits)," Bachara says. "These guys stand in line enough every day. We want to make sure they're not waiting in line when they're here."
Government officials show up for the event, as do local Boy Scouts. Bachara records the entire day and sends DVD copies to the recruits' families.
"This event really helps our Legion post stand out as a place of good will," Bachara says. "It's a very moving day. We older veterans know what it's like to be away from home – especially on a holiday. What better way to thank these recruits for their service than this?"
Bachara praises his fellow committee members – his wife, Mickey, along with Greg Padovani, Bob Ferraro, Joe Gesicki, David Lee, Ray Ariaz, and Wally and Stephanie Zawisza – for their dedication to a project that starts the first week of October and doesn't wrap up until the DVDs Bachara creates are mailed out to the recruits' families in December.
"I oversee the event, but everyone has their own responsibilities," Bachara says. "It's a lot of work, but it's something we all enjoy and look forward to each year."
It's something that has raised Post 134's visibility within Morton Grove. The event has created an alliance with local businesses and community leaders.
And it's veterans serving future veterans, further proof that the common bond of service spans generations.
And in a way, it brings a sort of "home for the holidays" feeling to these recruits.