By Barry Morris
The smells of a freshly baked apple pie straight out of the oven and turkey with all the fixings are fragrances synonymous with the Thanksgiving holiday, a unique time of year when the phrase “comforts of home” means something very different to America’s service members and their families.
For many service members and their families, a trip home this year may not be possible, as they are either forward deployed serving in another country or can’t make it home to their loved ones due to assigned duties, personal circumstances, or other reasons.
In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday tradition - and the USO’s commitment to supporting the people who serve in the U.S. military, including military families - the USO was honored to support President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden as they joined forces with renowned celebrity chef and USO Entertainment Tour Veteran Chef Robert Irvine to serve up a tasty “Friendsgiving” meal to over 400 family members of the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) sailors, as well as single sailors and Marine families assigned to units on Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, and the surrounding area, on the evening of Nov. 19, 2023.
“Events like this evening are at the heart and soul of what the USO is all about,” said Kenneth Miller, Senior Center Operations and Programs Manager for the USO Mid-Atlantic area. “Throughout the holidays, the USO is there to connect families across the globe and throughout the Mid-Atlantic area.“
“Our USO Holidays programming and this evening’s Thanksgiving meal with our president, and Dr. Biden, is truly impactful and brings the local military community together as one big family,” Kenneth continued. “Especially as two Naval Carrier Strike Groups, whose home port is right here at Norfolk, are currently deployed in the Middle East and their families are back home keeping them in their thoughts and prayers.”
The event was part of the White House’s Joining Forces initiative, where Dr. Biden has made military families a major focal point of her time in the White House, both now and when her husband served as vice president. In addition to serving as our Commander in Chief, under the terms of our bylaws and congressional charter, President Biden is also Honorary Chairman of the USO’s Board of Governors.
Joining Forces is a White House initiative to support military families, which includes families of service members and veterans, caregivers and survivors, and it’s why the president and Dr. Biden join our military year after year for Friendsgiving.
“Thank you to the Robert Irvine Foundation and the USO, for making this possible,” said Dr. Biden. “We help to wrap yourselves in the love and community that surrounds you – because family is more than parents and partners, it’s the people in this room – the bonds we forge and the families we create together.”
For Emma Wolbrueck, who attended the event with her two small children ages five and eight, and whose husband is currently deployed on the USS Eisenhower, she truly enjoyed Friendsgiving and the USO holiday festival.
“We’re having a blast,” said Emma. “My kids are going through their very first deployment and the USO Coffee Connections most months is exactly what we need - it’s the thing we most look forward to because we get to be around other people that understand and are accepting.”
“For us, getting involved in the community is huge and having resources is huge. If I know about it maybe I can share with someone else in need – because having these USO events is critical.”
Prior to meeting the president and Dr. Biden, service members and their families enjoyed a two-hour holiday festival hosted by the USO in partnership with the Naval Station Norfolk Morale Welfare and Recreation.
During the festival, service members and their families enjoyed multiple USO Gaming stations and the NFL Gaming Mobile, board games, cornhole, crafts and bouncy houses for the children, to include an array of holiday refreshments, putting everyone in a festive mood as they awaited the arrival of the president and Dr. Biden.
Before arriving to the dinner, the president, Dr. Biden and the USO also hosted a special advanced screening of the movie “Wonka,” a new musical fantasy film focusing on a young Willy Wonka, for hundreds of military families at the local base theater at Naval Station Norfolk, where families enjoyed popcorn and other tasty treats while watching the movie.
President Biden expressed sincere gratitude to the service members and their families, as well as the sacrifices they make in service to our country, including being apart from their loved ones.
“We only have one true sacred obligation, and that is to prepare those who we send in harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they come home and to make sure they are never forgotten,” said President Biden. “You literally are the backbone, the spine, the sinew of this nation – only 1% of you, that’s all, that protects the 99% of us.”
The president and Dr. Biden served guests a full Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, then spent their time meeting and speaking with service members and families at each table.
“In keeping with the Thanksgiving holiday tradition – and the USO’s mission of keeping America’s service members connected to family, home and country throughout their time in service – the USO is honored to support this very special holiday event where President and Dr. Biden have the opportunity to interact so closely with service members and their families,” said Virginia Johnson Burnley, Senior Vice President for Government Relations and External Affairs.
This dinner, and the many other dinners like it happening on bases and at USO Centers around the world, are a way to show our appreciation for the military families that sacrifice so much, and to make sure that no matter where their service takes them, they can still take part in time-honored American traditions and holidays that we all hold dear.
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