By Red Cross Volunteer David Murphy
Carole Sick noticed the two Coast Guard recruits wincing as they ate. Seated together at her Christmas table, the two young men had been polite but apprehensive, which wasn’t necessarily unusual since they had only met the Sick family a few hours earlier. It was Carole's first year hosting recruits from the Cape May Coast Guard Training Center through the program known as Operation Fireside, run by the American Red Cross New Jersey Region. Started more than 35 years ago, the program offers recruits an opportunity to take a break from eight weeks of basic training and spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with a host family. But Carole could tell that the recruits at her dinner table were uncomfortable. She worried – was it the food? Was there something else bothering them? "They didn't complain, " Carole says, "but I saw them wincing. I thought, my gosh they're in pain." She prodded for an answer and finally got one. It turned out both young men had just had their wisdom teeth pulled - not uncommon for new recruits. Not wanting to be rude, they had tried to get through the meal without mentioning it. "I suggested ice cream," Carole said, smiling. "And they kind of jumped at that."
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Across Cape May County, more than 360 Coast Guard recruits spent this past Thanksgiving Day with 120 host families and community organizations. All prospective hosts must live within an hour’s drive or 50 miles of the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May. Families apply through the Red Cross and are matched up with young men and women working their way through boot camp. “The Red Cross has sponsored this event every year since 1981,” says Petty Officer Chris Wilderman, the recruit coordinator for Operation Fireside at the base. “Their involvement, along with the community, has grown every year. The host families are always eagerly waiting outside the gate before they come in and getting to meet them and share their experiences in year’s past is always pretty humbling.” This year, the response was so overwhelming that the number of families willing to host outnumbered the recruits that were available. Tracey Martin says that happened to her family one year. “I think it was the saddest Thanksgiving we ever had,” she joked. For many volunteers, including Tracey, hosting recruits as part of Operation Fireside has been a lifelong tradition. Her parents began hosting recruits when she was still young. It was a way to honor the recruits and her own family’s long heritage in the Coast Guard. “My grandfather served for thirty years,” she says. “He loved that I did Operation Fireside. He called me his Coast Guard granddaughter. Honoring the Coast Guard is something I hold deeply.” Tracey started hosting 10 years ago and for many years, she opened her home on both the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. She says that on one level it was simply nice to have more people around the holiday dinner table. But, she says, “It’s incredible how quickly strangers can become family. Those hugs we get when we drop them off are real.”
For the men and women who have spent weeks in boot camp, Operation Fireside offers a badly-needed break. “The recruits that have just begun their basic training don’t understand entirely what is going on,” says Wilderman. “They know they will be leaving the base and eating a home cooked meal. To them the most important part is that they aren’t going to be getting yelled at for nine hours,” he added with a smile. “It’s a nice getaway,” says Gary Halbe, a Red
Cross volunteer who got involved with Operation Fireside four years ago. “The recruits we’ve hosted are so happy to be able to contact their families, wives and girlfriends. To see the joy as they talk to their families is so touching and their families are so happy to hear from them.” Recruits aren’t allowed cell phones while they’re in basic training, so the holidays offer the rare opportunity to contact loved ones back home. But if they end up spending an hour or so on the phone, none of the host families seem to mind. After all, the program is all about reconnecting with a sense of home. “We treat them like part of the family,” Gary says. “And they are so grateful.” On occasion, parents will ask to speak to members of the host families to express appreciation for their hospitality.
Families that have taken part say that inviting recruits to spend the holidays alongside their loved ones is a powerful experience. The simple act of sharing a meal and conversation can leave an impression that lingers for years afterward. Tracey Martin describes Thanksgiving during her senior year at college, when her family hosted three female recruits. “I remember talking to them... one or two hadn’t made it through their physical challenges.” Together, the women discussed their anxieties and doubts about the difficulties ahead. “At Christmas,” Tracey recalls, “I found out that they had passed and it made a big impression on me. I was in the same boat, trying to figure out what to do with my life.” Sandy McCrossen remembers that her family’s initial decision to open their home as part of Operation Fireside in 1991 was due in part to wanting a diversion for her father-in-law, who had lost his wife that same year. “I think it’s a very valuable and rare experience for each recruit to be able to see firsthand how the community is involved with the Coast Guard and wants to get to know them,” says Wilderman. He also said the recruits get their first sense of the kind of impact they will have on the communities they’re serving.
Often, the relationships that begin when the host families pick up their designated recruits don’t end when they’re dropped off. Families keep in touch with calls, texts, holiday cards and emails. Many are invited to graduations. Carole says she’s seen about half the recruits she’s hosted ultimately graduate, including one of those two young men who had his teeth pulled. “He was surprised and happy we showed up,” she remembers. Tracey Martin recalls a recruit that spent Christmas with her and her family. The recruit, Katie Salzmann, had broken her leg and was being sent home to heal before returning to boot camp. “She let me know when she was coming back,” Tracey says. “I went to her graduation and met her family.” The two still keep in touch.
There is a reason why so many of the families who have become a part of Operation Fireside tend to volunteer year after year. The experience, they say, is unique and invaluable. It’s a chance to honor and support these young servicemembers in a tangible and personal way. And it’s a chance for recruits to catch their breath and see how much their service means to the community around them. Tracey Martin described the experience as a gift to everyone involved. “(The recruits) become a part of your family,” she says. “And you become a part of theirs.”
Those who would like to learn more about Red Cross Operation Fireside can reach out by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 609-562-3483. Host families are added on the basis of first-come, first-served.