Reflections on 20 years of Operation Feed the Troops

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Stephani Barge
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

The smell of roasted turkey permeates through the crisp December air outside of a large maintenance hangar as members of Team Dover and their families follow their noses to an all-too-familiar event held on Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Dec. 14, 2022.

As they walk inside the hangar, their eyes feast on the festive holiday decor that covers the formation of tables within. A serving line has formed where hungry guests wait in anticipation to fill their plates and bellies as their ears dance to the sound of live music close by. The event has just begun, but is already living up to its name: Operation Feed the Troops.

For those who have been stationed at Dover AFB within the last 20 years, OFT is a well-known event. However, many do not recognize the two kind, older gentlemen that sparked its creation. Bob Reese and Rene Baldrich, founders and organizers of OFT at Dover AFB, are U.S. Air Force veterans with more than 70 years of combined service, the majority of which was in the 512th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

“[Feed the Troops] is a way for us to show support for the folks that are standing up for us on the frontlines,” said Reese. “Rene and I did it during Vietnam; you put on the uniform, go somewhere new, and you might not come back or could get injured. This has become our way to say thank you.”

OFT was created in 2002, at the beginning of the Iraq War, when troops were frequently traveling and forced to stay in the local area during the holiday season. Many service members had nowhere to go, prompting Reese and Baldrich to open their homes to troops.

Their first OFT dinner was a squadron-wide event, where they fed around 200 to 400 Airmen. At the time, there was very little coordination and help.

“People cooked food at their houses and loaded their personal vehicles to get it on base,” explained Baldrich. “After that, Bob was able to utilize his connections in the Dover community to get us some help. We’ve been provided kitchen trailers, food items and volunteers. Thanks to that, Feed the Troops has continued to grow and is now a base-wide event.”

These days, OFT feeds anywhere from 900 to 1,200 members of Team Dover, and has reached a record number of 70 cooked turkeys. The event now also includes live music, visits with Santa Claus and an assortment of other local treats that vary from year-to-year.

OFT brings members of Team Dover together for the holidays, including those of the Dover community who wish to show their support to Airmen.

“There is a large group of people working on this base and they interact well with the local community,” stated Baldrich. “The [ever increasing] number of volunteers in OFT highlights the great relationship between the base and local community, and the lengths they’ll go to support the troops.”

Beyond the Dover community, the base itself also plays a large role in the success of OFT.

“The key to our success is actually the chain of command on base,” said Reese sincerely. “They help get the word out and remind people that it's open to anybody with base access, not just military members. Without that, we wouldn’t have any troops to feed.”

After 20 years of feeding the troops, Reese and Baldrich are now looking at the future of OFT and how to keep it going.

“We’d like Operation Feed the Troops to have longevity,” expressed Baldrich. “We’re trying to find people who want to learn what we’ve been doing and then have them keep the event alive. Some things may change a little because of manpower and base population differences from year-to-year, so adaptability is key.”

Whatever comes next for OFT, Reese and Baldrich have forged a legacy of morale, support and Service Before Self on Dover AFB.

“If you’d have told me at the start of this, that we’d still be feeding the troops 20 years later, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Reese. “From day one it has been about showing our Airmen that we care and that they are supported. I think we’ve done a good job of that.”