GROTON, Conn. – Military members, veterans and their families throughout eastern Connecticut celebrated Thanksgiving in a number of ways ranging from sharing a meal with someone, to donating food to the less fortunate to taking in junior Sailors unable to go home for the holiday.
For Navy families on a shoestring budget, a coalition of organizations from Submarine Veterans Inc., to the Naval Submarine Base (SUBASE) New London First Class Petty Officers Associations, Groton area Chief Petty Officers Association, and more, came together to provide food through the Caring is Sharing Program.
“This is our third year helping out and it never gets old,” said Navy Diver 1st Class Michael Renzi. “It’s great to reach out to the community, great to support outreach and get in the holiday spirit. Putting food on the table means a lot. We’re looking to feed 200 to 250 families with these boxes and we’re running another drive for Christmas. You can donate anything. If you’re perception of Christmas is lime Jell-O and you donate some, we say thank you. Everybody has different holiday traditions and everything’s welcome.”
Bledsoe Hall onboard SUBASE New London was filled with boxes being filled by volunteers from all different ranks and ratings. Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Sean Vincent, assigned to the base dental clinic, worked tirelessly to orchestrate the event and bring together the food, funds and personnel to make Caring is Sharing happen.
“I was the point of contact for this drive at the dental clinic,” said Vincent. “I spent a lot of weekends and afternoons running the booths at the commissary and keeping track of who did what. If you’re going to do something, I say own it. Give a little, get a lot out of it. We’ve all been junior rank before. If you’re far from home and away from your people, that’s rough and I want to help. We fill the boxes with yams, corn, green beans, pumpkin, mashed potatoes, condensed milk and a lot of other stuff. The families also receive a turkey. It’s basic, but it feeds a whole family. I have a family of four and one of these boxes fed everyone.”
A special last-minute donation came from the Connecticut Basketball Conference’s annual Hoops for Hunger food drive. It was orchestrated by Senior Chief Sonar Technician (Submarine) Erik Gemaly, assigned to Navy Undersea Warfare Center, Newport, Rhode Island.
“I’m the president of the Groton Mystic Basketball League for boys and girls to play throughout southeastern Connecticut,” said Gemaly. “Every year the Connecticut Basketball Conference does a food drive where every town we play in has a bin for spectators to donate food. Being Navy, I wanted to give to Caring is Sharing. Me and the boys are on our way to a Celtics game in Boston and I thought it would be a good way to teach them about being young men, young adults.”
While Caring is Sharing helped junior or financially struggling Sailors and families enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner, Groton Regency Center hosted a Thanksgiving luncheon for active duty military members to dine with veterans and exchange their stories of time in the military.
“We had good times and we had bad times on the old diesel boats, but I’d go back in a heartbeat!” said Tom Evans, a former Engineman 1st Class who served aboard USS Irex (SS 482). “I remember once we were coming up the coast and had an accident. Everyone went topside to investigate, including the captain. He had been sleeping and jumped out of bed so we all got a good look at his PJs! The old long-johns with a flap on the rear!”
The dining room at Groton Regency was abuzz with talk and occasional laughter as guests and residents conversed. Paula Smith, director of Groton Regency Center, shared her gratitude to the U.S. Military for visiting her veteran residents.
“Today was our Thanksgiving luncheon with the Navy,” said Smith. “You guys don’t always go home for Thanksgiving so this is our way of saying ‘thank you’ and getting everybody together. “Look around! This is fantastic. Everyone’s smiling and happy. They’re having a great time! By the Navy coming in here, it validates what our veterans did and we get to thank you guys in person. It was wonderful to have you. They just get so much out of this!”
Many Sailors, typically of junior ranks or going through Naval Submarine School, are unable to go home for Thanksgiving Day itself, so the SUBASE Command Chaplain Center organizes the annual Adopt-a-Sailor program in which Sailors sign up to be adopted, and families in the surrounding community take in Sailors for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
“I’m a military kid so I don’t really have a place to call home, but I like to consider Tennessee my home state,” said Hospitalman Keaton Whelan, who reported to SUBASE New London Naval Branch Health Clinic three months ago. “This place has been really great to me. The family that took me in is really good people. They provided me with a great dinner and I love the Chaplain’s services for this whole event!”
Whelan, along with Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tristan B. Lotz, assigned to base Public Affairs, were adopted by the Di Cesare family of Mystic, Connecticut, for Thanksgiving.
“My connection to the Submarine Base is I work at the Navy Exchange,” said Michelle Di Cesare. “I’ve hosted Sailors for the past eight years. I really enjoy hosting the Sailors. It’s fun and you get to meet people from all across the United States.”
Di Cesare added that she sometimes gets requests from Sailors to make specific dishes their families made. She said having that little piece of home always made the Sailors extra happy.
“One Sailor wanted a rice pudding his grandmother used to make,” said Di Cesare. “Actually the recipe came from a restaurant in Miami and someone I knew had the very same recipe. He was blown away by that! This year has gone great! Sometimes it’s really hard to get the Sailors to open up and participate, but the two Sailors this time have really joined the conversation and had a good time. It’s a wonderful opportunity and I love to do it. My thanks to the Chaplain for settings this up.”
As the Holiday Season descends on eastern Connecticut like a winter gust, with it comes the warmth of the Holiday Spirit. From Sailors to families to veterans of wars long ended, joy, sharing and a sense of community are alive and well in and around SUBASE New London.