Betsy Lagakis will not cook for her family this Thanksgiving.
Her husband will do that while she’s at work.
She’ll finish her shift and venture back to her Callawassie Island home, where she’ll help host 11 loved ones.
Per tradition, as it’s been for the past seven years, she’ll arrive home after dark, having driven the 15 or so miles from Parris Island, where she will have just helped feed hundreds of Marine recruits.
Thanksgiving at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island’s 1st Recruit Training Battalion chow hall — where Lagakis, a civilian, is a supervisor for Grace Management — is, for the most part, like any other day. Recruits march into the chow hall. They get into position, stiffly holding their trays in front of their chests. And when given permission, they glide between the various food stations — always facing them, stepping horizontally with one foot, then the other, taking what they want and moving on.
But, on Thursday, there will be shrimp.
And spicy fruit salad.
And potatoes — 600 pounds of them.
And roast beef, ham and turkey — 900 pounds.
And deviled eggs, about 2,000, two per recruit.
And eggnog and ice cream and pie.
“That (first) one was a little harder to be away (from my family),” Lagakis said Tuesday, recalling the first Thanksgiving she worked in the chow hall in 2009. “But when you get here and you see how happy a deviled egg and a piece of pie makes them, you know it’s worth it — it’s special.”
It wasn’t as special about 20 years ago, when Staff Sgt. Greg Thomas was a Parris Island recruit.
“In ’97, when I came through, the chow halls weren’t staffed by civilians,” Thomas, a depot spokesperson, said. “Recruits served other recruits.”
“‘Mashed potatoes, recruit,’” he said, mimicking a server. “‘Aye, recruit,’” he said, in response. “You barely knew it was a holiday.”
On Thursday, despite the food lineup and the festive decor, some recruits might not immediately remember it’s Thanksgiving.
Joanna Yoakam, a civilian contract worker for Sodexo and the chow hall’s general manager, has seen the confusion: Recruits are physically and mentally exhausted, and they’ve lost track of time.
On Tuesday she watched them go through the food line and scolded one for taking a bite of bread.
“Hey, don’t eat in my line,” she said. Recruits are often sick, she explained, and eating in line spreads germs.
Behind her, affixed to the black tile wall, was a framed collection of thank-you notes.
“Dear 1st Battalion Mess Hall workers,” said one, written by PFC Benjamin Andela of Charlie Company, Platoon 1049. “As recruits/Marines, we always looked forward to chow time. But for me, the food wasn’t why I loved it. Seeing smiles and people who are ‘normal,’ those few moments of peace helped me get through the days that were super hectic.”
Notes like that are rare, Yoakam said, and so meaningful.
For three years now she’s seen pudgy recruits with long hair and a few extra pounds eat their first meal in the chow hall, and she’s seen them transformed after The Crucible — recruits’ final test — when they eat a Warrior’s Breakfast, their first meal in her chow hall as Marines.
She’s watched them unwisely load up on lasagna early in their training before learning lean meats and protein will make them stronger. (They’re getting the hang of it when they start choosing the baked fish, she said).
And she’s seen hints of smiles when, after spotting the deviled eggs and pies, recruits remember it’s Thanksgiving.
The recruits of 1st Battalion who will eat Thursday’s meal are new to Parris Island, according to Lagakis. They’re just in their second week, she said Tuesday, as she watched them glide between the food stations, some of them squaring their corners neatly, some not. They’re still learning what to do, she said, and how to do it.
The meal might remind some recruits of home but will be different for others.
Recruit Steven Ramos, of Reading, Pennsylvania, said his family usually gathers for a potluck dinner on Thanksgiving. “Hispanic food” comprises the menu, he said as he stood in Tuesday’s food line, holding his tray in front of his chest. Plantains are his favorite, he said. He smiled, an expression as faint as it was brief.
Ramos is in Phase One — the first three of 13 weeks — of training, the phase Lagakis says, as far as her staff is concerned, is the most important. You can tell when a recruit’s had a bad day, she said. You can tell when they need a kind word and a smile.
“This is their little time to get to be who they really are,” she said of chow time.
Like many households in the United States, Lagakis’ chow hall has spent the week prepping for Thanksgiving. And like many holiday gatherings, the food that took days to make will be gone in a matter of minutes — she estimates the 1,100 or so recruits will finish Thursday’s meal in an hour.
“My family knows how important this is to me,” she said of sacrificing time with her family to serve Parris Island’s recruits on Thanksgiving.
When her shift ends Thursday, she’ll head home to her family.
It’s likely they will have already eaten.
But, she said, they’ll still be there.
And for that she’ll be thankful, twice over.