Thanksgiving and the Military – Tradition, History, and Appreciation

Military leaders serve meals to their subordinates. A longstanding tradition with Thanksgiving and the Military.

According to the DoD, as of September 2020, there are over 220,000 military and DoD civilian personnel currently serving overseas. This number does not include those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. For those men and women, weekends and holidays are not really a thing. At least not like they are in the States. However, when it comes to Thanksgiving and the Military, this is one exception to that rule.

On Thanksgiving, the Military attempts to slow down, just a little, and enjoy the day. The cooks put on a spread that would make Guy Fieri’s head spin! All the jokes about “chow hall food” are forgotten, and good food, fun, fellowship, and traditions are enjoyed on Thanksgiving!

A Timeless Military Thanksgiving Tradition

One common Thanksgiving Day tradition in the Military is that the senior leaders serve dinner to the junior personnel.  When it is possible to do so, leaders uphold this tradition in different ways. Sometimes, it is by working in the dining facilities on their installations. Other times, the leaders may host Thanksgiving dinner for their subordinates and their families at their homes.

In November 2006, we were scheduled to deploy to Iraq the weekend after Thanksgiving. Because of the deployment, there were travel restrictions in place, so service members could not leave the area. This restriction presented a bit of a problem. I learned that some of my Soldiers were planning to celebrate Thanksgiving at a buffet-style restaurant called Golden Corral.  The idea of my Soldiers going having Thanksgiving with their families there did not sit well with me.  After all, this could be the last meal they ever have with their loved ones, EVER.  My poor wife had less than 48 hours to plan, shop, and prepare to host Thanksgiving for over 25 guests.  She pulled it off like a boss!

As a leader, I upheld this tradition of serving my subordinates by hosting Thanksgiving for my entire section, and their families, at our home. That dinner is still one of the most memorable Thanksgiving dinners I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. Members of the Armed Forces understand that “family” is not determined by DNA alone, and wherever they are in the world, they are sure to have family close at hand.

Where to get a great Thanksgiving Day meal

On a Military Installation

There are a great many benefits for Veterans, and a fantastic Thanksgiving meal is one of them. Most military bases consider the Thanksgiving meal a “special event” that includes active-duty, family members, Veterans, and government employees alike. When feasible, all are welcome to come and enjoy a fantastic feast on Thanksgiving. The meal is not free, but it is much cheaper and, in my opinion, better tasting than a restaurant.

There are some military regulations and guidelines, namely that a dining facility cannot exceed 100 percent of its utilization rate, and the installation commander has to authorize it. If you are close to a military installation, I encourage you to check with them to see what they are planning. If allowed, take the opportunity to go and enjoy your Thanksgiving day meal with the troops!

At your local American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars Posts and Veteran Service Organizations

If you are a member of one of these organizations, many host free Thanksgiving Day meals. If you are not a member, you can be signed in as a guest of another Veteran. These meals give you an excellent opportunity to socialize with local Veterans in the community. You can reach out to your local American Legion or VFW for details or to volunteer to assist if needed. If you do not know where one of these organizations is, you can find an accredited VSO list here.

Do you know a Veteran who will be alone this Thanksgiving? Why not invite them to come and enjoy the day with you and your family? Granted, with COVID, this is not necessarily an option this year, but if you can find a way to make it work, I am sure you would not regret it!

Thanksgiving in the Military, a brief history

In the United States, Thanksgiving’s origins are traced back to when the Pilgrims and the Native Americans celebrated to give thanks for the first harvest in the “New World.”  During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington, as President, made a Thanksgiving Proclamation to help unify the nation during wartime. Part of his proclamation stated:

“I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—”

Then, right in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, at the urging of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, called for a National Day of Thanksgiving. In the fall of 1863, Lincoln began his proclamation, stating that “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”

Can you imagine?!? 1863 was the bloodiest year in the history of the Civil War, and still, President Lincoln spoke to the entire nation, North and South, asked that the country and “the whole American people” pause and give thanks! That, my friends, is why the Military still does a slow down on Thanksgiving to this day.



So, this year, when you sit down to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, don’t think about how unfortunate you are that you can’t spend it with all of your loved ones due to COVID-19. Don’t fuss over the political rabble going on with the presidency and the election drama. Instead, give thanks for the gifts that we, “the whole American people,” are blessed with as Americans. Enjoy the freedom, security, and prosperity we have been provided by those who served and continue to serve. Please take a moment to let everyone at your table tell something they are for which they are grateful. I, for one, am thankful for my family, my friends, and my freedom. God bless you, and God bless America!


P.S.  If you are interested in some ways to say Thank You to our Veterans, check out these Gift Ideas for Veterans.

Leave a Comment