News - McHenry County

Naval Station Great Lakes recruits spend Thanksgiving in McHenry County

Adopt-a-sailor program back for first time since before COVID-19

Recruits from the Naval Station Great Lakes' Recruit Training Command used laptop computers and cell phones to call their families on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, from the Johnsburg Moose Lodge 691.

Bruce Preston gets emotional when he talks about how being a part of Johnsburg’s Moose Lodge 691 allows him the opportunity to give back to his community.

Part of that happened Thanksgiving Day.

For the first time since 2019, before COVID-19 canceled the events for two years, the Moose Lodge was able to invite sailors from the Naval Station Great Lakes’ Recruit Training Command to spend the holiday with them.

“I never served [in the military], but I have been on the board and a member here. This lodge has taught me the value of giving back,” said Preston, junior past president of the Johnsburg Moose Lodge.

Fraternal and veterans groups throughout McHenry County offered similar experiences Thursday, including St. Margaret Mary Knights of Columbus in Algonquin, Nunda Lodge 169 in Crystal Lake and Polish Legion of American Veterans Post 188 in McHenry.

The Thanksgiving adopt-a-sailor program has been in existence since World War II, according to Great Lakes officials. A total of 1,300 recruits are at the station, and those eligible to participate in the annual program are scheduled to graduate boot camp Dec. 2 or 9.

“This program allows [Recruit Training Command] to get involved with the community over the holidays as local organizations come forward every year to give our recruits a chance to have a home-cooked meal and spend time in a comfortable environment,” said Capt. Kertreck Brooks, the training center’s commanding officer.

After a few photos, recruits from the Naval Station Great Lakes' Recruit Training Command marched in formation on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, into the Johnsburg Moose Lodge 691. A total of 45 recruits from the Naval Station Great Lakes Recruit Training Command spent their day at the Moose lodge.

Many recruits are spending their first holiday away from home, so phone calls, good company and food help lift their spirits, Brooks said.

One of those recruits is Ernesto Rios, 19, of Mission, Texas. “If I were at home, I would be working and I wouldn’t like my life,” like he does now, Rios said. He had a tough upbringing and the Navy has changed the person he is and the person he is becoming, he said.

When he gets out of the Navy in four years, he wants to use the GI Bill for an education and become a real estate agent, Rios said.

“I want to help out other people, like the people who have helped me out,” Rios said.

Alex Gomes, 23, of Boston took a moment before the meal to thank the Moose lodge for having them and encourage his fellow recruits. As one of the older sailors, he has “kind of been a motivator for the division,” Gomes said.

Ernesto Rios, 19, of Mission, Texas, breaks the balls during a game of pool at the Johnsburg Moose Lodge 691 on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022. He was among 45 recruits from the Great Lakes Naval Academy who spent their Thanksgiving at the lodge.

Gomes sat next to Ricardo “Sonny” Maldonado, 18, of California. Maldonado, Gomes said, was actually the “lead for the division” but when he saw fellow shipmates struggling, he would step up and do his best to help.

After the recruits had their dinner – or seconds and thirds of that dinner – they were invited to play some pool, sing karaoke, call or make video calls to their families. The phones and computers were brought in by Moose lodge members.

They picked up the sailors about 6 a.m., Preston said. They planned a full day of activities before bringing them back to the base by 6 p.m.

The Naval recruits were not the only special group who partook of the meal. A total of 20 people, including teachers and children, came from Mooseheart, a residential school north of Aurora for young people who cannot live with their families for various reasons.

Alex Rebollar, 20, of Austin, Texas, gets seconds on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, at the Johnsburg Moose Lodge 691. He was one of 45 recruits from the Naval Station Great Lakes' Recruit Training Command who spent their Thanksgiving at the Moose lodge.

Lisa and Philip Johnson have worked at Mooseheart for 21 years, and the couple met while working there. They are family teachers, acting almost as parents for a house of boys at the Mooseheart campus.

It is a special day for the children, Lisa Johnson said, adding, “They love it. They feel like rock stars.”

For many of the young men and women who spent at least part of their younger years at Mooseheart, the event is also a chance for them to ask questions of the recruits, about what it is like to serve in the military.

“This is a possibility for their futures,” she said.