KILLEEN — “Even though it’s not Thanksgiving, we’re celebrating it early,” said an excited Reyna Reyes, third grader at West Ward Elementary School. “The Soldiers came here to see us because they have lots of stuff to do, so they normally don’t get to see kids.”

Forty 1st Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade Soldiers were lucky enough to make the roster for the annual West Ward Thanksgiving Lunch Nov. 21.

The event allowed Soldiers to support their partner school through preparation, cleanup, serving and organizational efforts throughout the entire day by putting on a traditional Thanksgiving-style meal for hundreds of area students and their families.

“I’m always up for volunteering. I just never get the opportunity,” Sgt. Cody Smith, 1-44 ADA Bn. Patriot enhanced operator/maintainer, said. “I got the opportunity to do it this time, so I jumped on it.”

This eagerness to serve the community is a unit hallmark 1-44’s leaders have been proud of, as they’ve worked with West Ward as their partner community school over the last three years.

“Every year, West Ward does a Sept. 11 remembrance march,” Lt. Col. Douglas Simmons, 1-44 ADA Bn. commander, said. “We supported them last year, before we left. As we just got back, it was really important, as the unit just redeployed, that we made time for West Ward and really made time for the children – to help them understand what 9/11 means, what service to the country means and that we are absolutely partners with them.”

Their constant presence has not gone unnoticed.

“I don’t think we could pull this off without the cooperation of food services, the district, our Adopt-a-School unit showing up,” West Ward Assistant Principal Debbi Barkley said. “There’s no way the admin staff here and cafeteria staff here could do it alone. So we’re very thankful for all the help.”

A lot of the planning and considerations for the day’s festivities rested on the solid working relationship between 1-44 ADA Bn.’s Adopt-a-School Program representative, Capt. Ethan Johnson, and West Ward Elementary Parent Liaison, Wayne Moore. They frequently met during parent-teacher meetings throughout the year to ensure they kept each other on the right page, especially for an event as special as the Thanksgiving lunch.

“We need extra eyes and ears,” Moore said. “It’s just the logistics of getting this done, plus, just to see the interaction between the Soldiers and the kids – the Soldiers are away from home and missing cousins, little brothers and all that; and our children get to see adults in a different capacity than us educators.”

Though her favorite parts of the meal were the turkey and the pumpkin pie, young Reyes enjoyed the antics of one enthusiastic Soldier, who served food while wearing a pilgrim’s hat.

“It was hilarious.” Reyes said, beaming. “It really looked funny.”

There was no doubt that the students were at the center of it all.

“It’s a huge blessing for all of us,” Johnson said. “If we can provide any mentorship, or just a role model for them to look up to, then that’s all we ask, and I think we’ve done that so far.”