Several duty stations ago, I volunteered at a soup kitchen. Because we were there to deliver toiletries and clothing, we had the chance to sit with the people who were there to be served. The room was small and when it was really cold outside, it was packed. That meant we were shoulder to shoulder, with not much space between us as we talked.
Since that time, I've had the chance to serve at other soup kitchens and, sadly, I have not had the same experience. Most of the time, there are tables between us and those being served with few people crossing over the divide. It was us. And it was them. The knowledge that there should only be an "us" seemed like an impossibility.
Food connects people. Those were the words that Cooking Channel Celebrity Chef Kelsey Nixon said when I asked her about her work to help military families celebrate missed moments. Kelsey was at the USO Warrior and Family Center in Bethesda, Maryland as part of a Make a Moment event. While the military families attending started eating all of the good stuff that comes with holiday meals, I asked Kelsey why she thought events like the one that night were so important, and she said the words that still linger with me:
Food connects people.
Her words reminded me of the moments I spent at the tables of people I met at different duty stations. We ate not only with military friends, but at the tables of people in the community who opened up their homes to us during the holiday season and even when there wasn't a special occasion.
The meals were so important to us because they made us feel connected to our new community. Being invited over meant someone, beyond my other military friends who intimately knew the sacrifices, cared to get to know us and make us feel welcome. Many times my husband was gone, we were missing a holiday or birthday, a missed moment, together. When they asked me over to eat, I felt as if they cared about that sacrifice.
Why is that important? Because to send your loved one off to war without the support of the people who are sending him is one of the emptiest and most hard to reconcile feelings for a military family. If they don't even think about our deployed soldiers or give a second thought to what they are doing, then why was there an empty seat at our Thanksgiving table?
Over a meal, people get to know each other and share their stories.
I still think about a family I met at that first soup kitchen. There was a young man in the family who is now about 16 years old. Back when I knew him, he lived in a room with a mattress on the floor in a small apartment with his grandmother and four other siblings. On one occasion, we invited him up to our home. As he sat eating lunch on our back porch, he looked up from his plate and took in what was around him.
"It's so green," he said. "It's just so clean. And so green."
Sometimes we forget that not everyone gets to have the same experience as we do. Sitting at that table, sharing that meal, gave me a perspective I would have never had the chance to see and start to understand without inviting that young man to our table.
Sharing a table is intimate. Food connects people. Military families have stories to share and the American public needs to be connected with them. I'm not saying we're needy but we need to get to know one another.
Why not over Thanksgiving dinner? Or a Sunday meal? Talk to a soldier at the breakfast counter. Ask that new family over to join yours for meal. Take a young new military mom out for coffee. Or accept an invitation from a military neighbor to go to lunch. Yes, it may feel a little weird. You may not know them like those friends you've known your whole life. But you need to get to know us and, yes, we need to get to know you better too.
We have had empty seats at our tables for so many of our holidays. Let us tell you that story while we get to hear yours. It will be one of the best gifts you can give a military family. We need to be "us" and not them. Walk across the divide and share a meal.
Want to learn more of our stories? Check out Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life which includes the stories of over 40 military connected authors.
Learn more about Make a Moment, a part of the larger campaign and partnership between the USO and Homewood Suites by Hilton,which helps families celebrate the moments that are missed due to military life.