FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas — Debi Payne still remembers that first Thanksgiving away from home, a lonely holiday spent miles away at a military post in Alabama.
More than 30 years later, she's among the hundreds of civilians opening up their homes to military service members — many of whom who will be spending their last Thanksgiving in the country before shipping out to Iraq or elsewhere.
"You're trying to be tough, but yet the holidays are worse," said Payne, a 49-year-old former Army soldier who has two stepsons in the Marines. "We're going to watch movies, sit outside and just get them away from the atmosphere and hopefully establish some longtime friends."
About 1,000 trainees in the Army's 32nd Medical Brigade at Fort Sam Houston will take part in "Mission Thanksgiving," spending the holiday eating and relaxing in the homes of 500 or so local volunteers.
Thousands of other soldiers across the country will participate in similar programs, but the one at Fort Sam Houston — which has been in place about 20 years — is one of the largest.
"At first, some soldiers aren't sure if they want to do it," said the brigade's chaplain, Jonathan Etterbeek. "They thought they wouldn't like it, but they really enjoyed it."
Many volunteer families have current or former military ties.
Etterbeek cited one woman whose husband is deployed and wants to have soldiers at home for the holiday, even if she can't have her own soldier. Others are participating for the first time, offering spots at their tables because they want to help out.
Most trainees in the 32nd are fairly young. They typically train at Fort Sam Houston for several months, then move on to their assigned units. From there, they could ship out at any time. With their futures uncertain, many are ready for some relaxation Thursday.
"It really does help take the stress off," said 19-year-old Pfc. Edward Ellis, who is training to be a pharmacy specialist and looking forward to a thick slice of turkey Thursday.
Etterbeek said trainees are given some guidance before going for their meal, but they're not told to avoid discussion of the war in Iraq.
"I think Americans are able to separate politics and their support for soldiers," Etterbeek said. "It's a Thanksgiving they will never forget. These kids will remember the family that had them forever."