FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The Smoke Bomb Hill dining hall on Fort Bragg was brimming Wednesday with turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie as about 500 soldiers and their families sat down to a Thanksgiving meal.
This is the first Thanksgiving since 9/11 that nearly all of Fort Bragg's units are home for the holiday, said Chief Warrant Officer Armour Taylor, the food adviser for the 20th Engineer Brigade.
"It's great to have them back home," Taylor said.
Taylor said dining hall workers began preparations Sunday, decorating cakes and the hall with Christmas lights, candles, table cloths and ice sculptures. From Tuesday through Thanksgiving Day, Fort Bragg expects to serve 10,000 people with 4,100 pounds of turkey, 3,300 pounds of beef, 1,200 pounds of shrimp, 2,800 pounds of ham, 1,400 pounds of Cornish hen, 2,900 pies, 214 cheese cakes, 444 cans of whipped cream, 414 cans of yams, 216 cans of green beans and 222 cans of corn.
"It's delicious," Sgt. Arland Schnacker said of Wednesday's meal. "It beats being deployed and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)."
Schnacker, who is from Texas, plans to stay on post through the holidays to spend time with his fellow soldiers.
"Words can't describe how it feels to be home," said Schnacker, who has been deployed three times.
Higher-ranking soldiers in their blue dress uniforms stood behind the buffet to serve the younger enlisted soldiers as they made their way through the line.
First Lt. Sable Norlin said that, just like in the field, officers serve first and eat last.
"It gives us an opportunity to serve them, the soldiers who are serving us in the field," Norlin said.
She said it's fun and gets a little messy on the buffet line.
"It ends up being a competition," Norlin said. "Everyone wants to get their food out to the soldiers first."
Norlin said that her unit is awaiting deployment in February. She and her husband, who is also in the military, plan to enjoy this holiday as it may be their last together for a while.
"We're trying to make the time we do have together count," she said. "It's stressful but worth it to wake up every morning to serve our country."
Spc. John Smith and Spc. Andrew Billingsly, both of the 307th Engineer Battalion, said the meal strengthens the bond between the service members and the officers.
"On a day like today you see officers and enlisted men sitting together," Smith, of Pennsylvania, said. "It seems like on days like today, they talk and care, rather than just checking the ranks."
Lt. Gen. Daniel Allyn, commander of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, visited with the two men as he made his way around the hall wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving.
Billingsly, from Ohio, said he wasn't planning to make it home this year, but that the meal brought back fond memories.
"It helps bring back all the old memories from home, but in a new light with friends," he said.
Jeff Mitchell, chaplain for the 27th Engineer Battalion, enjoyed the meal with his wife, daughter and father-in-law. His other three children joined him later.
"I've spent a couple of Thanksgivings away from my family and it's great to be home and give thanks with my family," Mitchell said.
Mitchell pointed to a statue just outside the dining hall. He said it had been dedicated earlier this year to the 13 soldiers that the 27th Engineer Battalion lost in combat in 2010.
"Inside, these soldiers get to enjoy Thanksgiving," Mitchell said, "when outside is a monument to the 13 that we lost.
"We have a lot to be thankful for."