HARLEM, Ga. - Fort Gordon soldiers walked into Harlem's fourth annual Military Thanksgiving event Tuesday ready to serve.
But they got served instead.
"We volunteered to come here tonight to serve other people," said Pfc. Cara Lanning, 19, originally of Fort Huachuca, Ariz. "When we came in, we were surprised by the people here."
Pfc. Lanning is part of a group of Army soldiers who often volunteer in the community. They were brought to Harlem Tuesday under the pretense that they were to help serve dinner.
Pfc. Lanning was one of more than 200 military service men and women honored at the city's Military Thanksgiving, designed to thank them for their service and provide a little piece of home for the members of the military who can't be with their families on Thanksgiving.
As the Harlem Middle School band played "America, America," each service member was greeted with a hug from Mary Willcox, whose late husband was a career military man, and a room full of applauding volunteers.
"We were really surprised by it," Pfc. Lanning, 19, said after enjoying a Thanksgiving feast that included turkey, dressing and all the trimmings, including a table full of homemade desserts.
Each soldier got a taste of Harlem as volunteers sat at each table to talk with soldiers.
"This is our honor to do this," the Rev. Roger Vest, of Harlem United Methodist Church, told the service men and women at the first of two separate servings of the meal.
Every year, the church, the city of Harlem and city residents come together for the event, formerly called Feed-A-Soldier, to acknowledge the sacrifices of so many service men and women.
"A lot of people take for granted the very freedom that they have," Harlem Department of Public Safety Chief Jerry Baldwin said, adding that he volunteers to serve the soldiers each year. "They (these soldiers) are protecting that freedom that we take for granted. Whether you agree with the war or disagree with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq is irrelevant."
Pvts. Tuan Bui, 18, and Thomas Curto, 18, are spending their first Thanksgiving away from their families, which they both agreed is difficult.
"It's been a while since I had a home-cooked meal, and it was really good," Pvt. Bui, of Houston, said.
Curto said the feast in Harlem was appreciated, but he's really looking forward to the two-week leave he'll have to visit his family in San Diego during the Christmas holidays.
Pfc. Lanning, who plans to work her way up to Army lieutenant colonel someday, said this is her first Thanksgiving away from her mostly military family and the attention and hearty meal did help.
"It makes me feel better," Pfc. Lanning said. "But it is just not as easy to understand that this is your family now. So you have to learn to get along with 500 people and make them your family and find somebody that you can trust like one of your own."