- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

NORFOLK — Every year for almost 20 years, Chris and Walter Pianka have made room for at least two strangers at their Thanksgiving table.

They are among kindhearted families who volunteer at this time of year to take in more than 100 young military members stationed in southeastern Virginia who can’t make it home for the holiday.

“It’s not their home, but they usually have a good time,” said Mrs. Pianka, who spends upward of $200 every year to treat guests to a fabulous feast of turkey, roast beef, candied yams, mashed potatoes, cookies, cheesecake and more.

The “Adopt-a-Serviceperson” program, in its 18th year, is coordinated by the United Service Organizations (USO) of Hampton Roads. The nonprofit group works to enhance the quality of life and provide public support for armed service members and their families.

Most of the service members taking part in the Thanksgiving program are Army students finished with basic training who are living at Fort Eustis in Newport News for a few weeks or months while they learn military occupational specialties.

Many would have spent yesterday on post and eaten in the mess hall if the volunteer families hadn’t adopted them for the day.

“I think it would be pretty lonely, just me and my buddies, hanging out in the barracks,” said Pvt. Cody Weaver, 18, of Roseville, Calif. Pvt. Weaver is in the Army National Guard and is training to be a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic.

The four-day holiday break was too short for Pvt. Weaver to head all the way to the West Coast, but he was grateful to be able to spend his first Thanksgiving away from home with a family in Virginia.

Jan and Steve Daum of Gloucester were happy to share the holiday with Pvt. Weaver and Pvt. Matthew Hendrickson, 19, of Terra Haute, Ind., who also is training to be a Black Hawk mechanic. For safety reasons, service members are sent to the families’ homes in pairs, with some families taking in more than two persons.

This was the third consecutive year the Daums signed up to bring home service members. They figure the more guests, the merrier.

“We had done Thanksgiving with just the two of us, and it’s not as much fun as with a crowd of people,” Mrs. Daum said. “When you can’t be with family, make a family.”

She likes to tell her guests, “You can help if you want, you can have the day off if you want, you can curl up by the fireplace if you want.”

Other options include watching movies on videotape, checking out holiday light displays and exploring the Daums’ back yard, with a small train looping around the raised-bed garden.

For Pvt. Hendrickson, the hardest part of being away from home for Thanksgiving was “not being able to eat my mom’s cooking.”

So he was “pumped up” about the chance to eat a home-cooked holiday meal and catch a football game on television.

“A family here wanting to take in a soldier and give them a good environment, that says a lot about the family,” he said.

More than 50 families from throughout the region were scheduled to take in service members this year, with about 100 families on a waiting list, said program coordinator Danis Lensch, who has invited service members into her own home.

Fort Eustis buses soldiers to a central pickup point at a mall, where they line up in formation and are matched up with the families. Some families opt to drive to the base to pick up their guests.

“It’s a nice, sweet perk for the military,” said Vicki Bowker, a spokeswoman at Fort Eustis. “The families in the community have been so gracious.”

The service members initially are in uniform but may change into civilian clothes at the families’ homes.

Many families volunteer year after year. They may have relatives who once were in the military or are serving now and may not be around for the holiday, Miss Lensch said.

The Piankas, of Chesapeake, have been with the program just about from the start. They have never skipped a year, even during the eight years when Mrs. Pianka used a wheelchair because of a back injury.

They considered canceling this year because Mr. Pianka, who does much of the cooking, suffered a stroke in July. But, “it’s one thing I can do for soldiers and sailors,” said Mr. Pianka, who spent three years in the Army.

“We feel they’re putting their life on the line for us,” Mrs. Pianka added. “We need to support them.”

The Piankas whip up more than enough food to make sure their guests can nibble all day long and take leftovers back to the base to share with those who didn’t go out on Thanksgiving.

They also insist that the service members use their phone to call home.

“Mama wants to hear from you on Thanksgiving,” Mr. Pianka said.

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