Volunteers dish up food, gratitude for the troops

Mai Nguyen (left) and Jim Hinkle load lunch bags into boxes after American Legion Post 140 Buckhead members and their family members assembled 2,000 them for USO Operation: Holiday Block Leave.   PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Mai Nguyen (left) and Jim Hinkle load lunch bags into boxes after American Legion Post 140 Buckhead members and their family members assembled 2,000 them for USO Operation: Holiday Block Leave. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

On the Sunday of New Year’s weekend, 7,500 troops-in-training from Fort Benning arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Their Christmas visits with family and friends all across the country had just ended.

“They have left their homes and their families, and they are going back to training,” said Mary Lou Austin, CEO and president of USO Georgia. “It’s cold and dreary, and they’ve had a long plane ride into Atlanta, or they have a long bus ride ahead of them.”

COVID-19 safety precautions are in place, as are volunteers with the USO’s Operation Holiday Block Leave. Their objective is to make the last leg of the soldiers’ trip back to base a little brighter by providing each soldier with a bagged lunch.

“It’s just heart-warming,” said Furman Wood, a former Marine and junior vice commander of American Legion Post 140 in Buckhead. “You just feel so lucky to do that for those guys, knowing what they do for us.”

This is the 13th year and largest Operation Holiday Block Leave that Wood has organized. He has an army of volunteers that he has built through the years from his large circle of family, friends, and business contacts.

“It’s mostly just word of mouth,” Wood said. “Everybody really wants to help.”

Carol Reeder (left) and Doug Huber make sandwiches along with a group of American Legion Post 140 Buckhead members and their family for USO Operation: Holiday Block Leave.  PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Carol Reeder (left) and Doug Huber make sandwiches along with a group of American Legion Post 140 Buckhead members and their family for USO Operation: Holiday Block Leave. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Every year for decades, several Army bases, including Benning near Columbus, send thousands of troops to and from home for the Christmas holidays through Hartsfield-Jackson.

As they depart for the holidays in mid-December and then return around New Year’s, the USO and its volunteers welcome the troops with something to drink and eat, a lounge to relax in if they have a layover, and help with any connecting flights.

“It’s quite an operation,” Austin said. “Planning starts in October.”

About 20 business, community, and veterans’ groups pitched in this year to help Wood create the lunches for the troops from Fort Benning. They included Georgia Power, which donated 350 bagged lunches, the Rotary Club of Paulding County that contributed 500, and American Legion Post 140 in Buckhead that made 2,000.

American Legion Post 140 Buckhead members and their family assemble 2,000 lunch bags for USO Operation: Holiday Block Leave. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
American Legion Post 140 Buckhead members and their family assemble 2,000 lunch bags for USO Operation: Holiday Block Leave. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

On the day before the soldiers’ returned to Hartsfield-Jackson, about 30 volunteers spread out across nine tables at Post 140 on Powers Ferry Road and filled bag after bag with sandwiches, chips, fruit and cookies, said Jim Martell, managing partner of Vested Interest Partners @Keller Williams Realty First Atlanta and the post’s adjutant.

Some bags are brightly decorated. Others include handwritten notes from volunteers and children as young as kindergarteners, thanking the soldiers for their service to the country.

“I would absolutely do it again,” said Martell, a first-time participant in Operation Holiday Block Leave.

When the soldiers received the lunches Sunday, they were “so happy and thankful,” said Woods, who encourages volunteers to involve their children.

Many of these troops come from challenged backgrounds and are not paid very well, he said.

“They are being trained and molded, and that’s difficult,” Wood said. “There’s not really any coddling or feel-good-kind of stuff.”

But the hope is the small gesture of a meal will mean something to the soldiers now as it has in the past.

“As a traveling trooper, many, many years ago, I remember the smiling lady in the New Orleans train station that handed me a cup of coffee and a beignet and helped me to the bus station on my way to Fort Polk, Louisiana,” said the Rev. Bill Arnold, a member of Post 140, in a call-out for this year’s volunteers.

“She would not remember me,” Arnold said. “But I will never forget. She was my blessing.”

American Legion Post 140 Buckhead member Jonathan Reeder loads boxes of lunch bags into a vehicle for USO Operation: Holiday Block Leave.  PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
American Legion Post 140 Buckhead member Jonathan Reeder loads boxes of lunch bags into a vehicle for USO Operation: Holiday Block Leave. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

MORE DETAILS ABOUT USO GEORGIA

The USO at Hartsfield-Jackson is open and operating under CDC guidelines and COVID-19 protocol. It is located at 6000 N. Terminal Parkway. Its mission is to strengthen America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country. It’s a not-for-profit 501(c)3 charity. Read more about it at usoofgeorgia.org.

Former Marine Furman Wood helped out at the USO’s airport lounge one day during the Iraq War. “I was hooked and made it known I was hooked,” he said.

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