A total of 1,000 marines received Thanksgiving meals this holiday after the annual Adopt-a-Marine program was canceled due to the pandemic. Normally dozens of marines at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in 29 Palms are paired up to spend the day with families across the Coachella Valley.
"With the COVID restrictions for this year-- our entry-level students, as they come here from all across the country-- unfortunately it’s hard for them to get home for Thanksgiving with the COVID restrictions," said MCAGCC Lt. Colonel Matthew Hall.
American Friends of Our Armed Forces helps organize the annual event with the base. This year, AFAF organized a way to get marines their meals even if it meant not being able to spend the day with a host family.
"I’d say we had about 300 marines come through in about 30 minutes," said Lt. Col. Hall.
Marines flocked to get their barbecue meals late Friday morning.
"Our target audience is for our marines who are here as students getting their military occupation specialty training who reside here on the barracks in the base," said Lt. Col. Hall.
The year 2020 has presented unprecedented challenges, mainly due to the pandemic. The standard holiday weekend is usually 4 days, which already makes it difficult for some marines to get home to family because many are coming straight out of training. On top of that, Lt. Col. Hall said COVID-19 restrictions are adding to the difficulty of making it home.
"For me this is the time of year when we think of the military and the families and how they’re spread around the world and how they’re isolated from their family. Then you throw in this whole thing with COVID, it makes it a very difficult lifestyle," Founder and President of American Friends of Our Armed Forces, Walt VanBenthuysen said.
The nonprofit organization, which is based out of Palm Desert, usually teams up with the base to allow marines the chance at spending the holiday with a host family in the Coachella Valley.
"Years prior we would charter 10 buses, come here to the base, pick up 400 marines at about 9 in the morning, have them down to the valley around 11 where they would be introduced to their host family. They’d spend the day with them," said VanBenthuysen.
Despite the Adopt-a-Marine cancellation, VanBenthuysen did not want to leave the service members empty-handed this holiday. Instead, they scaled down the event to hand out meals. He said when families learned they wouldn't be receiving marines this holiday, they found other ways to pitch in.
"We have 100s of people that donated to the cost of the event," said VanBenthuysen.
In fact, VanBenthuysen said donations were successful enough at allowing them to carry some of that money over for an additional event for Christmas.
"I believe it’s incredibly important just to take care of the marines, the morale and welfare, let them know that we care about them," said Lt. Col. Hall.
For more information on how to help out or donate, you can visit the charity's website http://www.afafusa.com/donate.html.