Every year, thousands of soldiers spend the holidays hundreds miles away from their families. Whether they spend them overseas or stateside, not having someone to share the holiday season with can be depressing.
This year, Van Wheeler, owner of Vann’s Restaurant in Hinesville, wants to ensure Fort Stewart soldiers have a place to go.
He and his family will serve hot meals, free of charge, to active-duty soldiers from noon-5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
“For someone to be stuck in the barracks, who really can’t afford to get out, just didn’t sit well with me,” Wheeler said.
“I called my mom and said we could have thanksgiving together anytime, this just wasn’t going to be the year.”
Wheeler cooked up his plan a few weeks ago when one of the restaurant’s regulars asked him what he was doing for the holidays. When the soldier told him he did not have a place to go, Wheeler said he could not pass up the opportunity to give back to those who have given him so much.
“We’ve been fortunate here,” he said. “We did not know what to expect when the troops returned, and I owe a good part of our success to them.”
Wheeler had to begin preparing his military appreciation feast Tuesday because he gave his entire staff the holiday off.
Twenty turkeys were smoked and roasted, six hams donated by U.S. Foods have been prepared and 10 trays of stuffing have been baked, all ready to line the counters and tables at the restaurant Thursday. West Rehab also donated money to help buy trimmings.
Kristie Bricker, one of Vann’s employees scheduled to be off for the holiday and the only one to volunteer to help with the feast, said she couldn’t miss the chance to serve the guys who make up her “extended family.”
“Working here, you get to know these guys personally, and so what is it to come in for a couple of hours to make sure they get to have a good meal,” she said.
“The whole thing about Thanksgiving is giving, right?” she asked. “Why not give to people who give to you?”
Soldiers apparently feel the same about the service they get from Vann’s.
Sgt. James Beck visits the restaurant at least three times a week. He said Vann’s staff has always made him feel welcome.
“Vann’s does a lot for the military,” he said. “They encourage us to keep coming back.”
Because Beck’s family lives in California and a plane ticket home costs more than $1,300, he plans to take advantage of Vann’s free meal.
“I am looking forward to sitting down, eating and watching the Cowboys game.”
Wheeler said it is the least he could do for the men and women he not only has a great respect for, but for those who also have a special place in his heart.
“My dad was a purple-heart veteran. Last Thanksgiving was the first one without him, so I know that this event would have made him very proud.”