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Soldiers on the battlefield keep in their hearts a reminder of what they're fighting for:
God. Country. Freedom.
Their sweetheart back home.
And... biscuits and gravy?
From the flight decks of aircraft carriers and the beaches of Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq, soldiers from Galax longed for a taste of home.
Forget apple pie, that most patriotic of dishes.
A Southern soldier's belly rumbles like a Sherman tank for pinto beans and corn bread, pork tenderloin and fried chicken.
When Galax First Christian Church members thought about honoring the congregation's many veterans, Nancy Sawyers struck on a brilliant idea — find out what foods they missed the most while serving overseas, and then fix a meal featuring all those items.
This past Sunday, the church recognized veterans from World War II all the way up to Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq.
Each veteran received a pin from church elder Larry Spangler and flowers from elder Sara Robinson.
Phillip Smith, the youngest veteran honored, got something extra — a Happy Meal.
Spangler presented the bag with a smile.
Smith, a Petty Officer 3rd Class in the U.S. Navy, said he missed McDonald's most of all.
During Operation Enduring Freedom, Smith served on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise for six months in 2006 and then served in aviation maintenance aboard a ship.
"It was good to be free when I returned to civilian life," said Smith, who's working on a criminal justice degree at Radford University.
In a booklet prepared for Sunday's service, veterans from the church listed the foods they missed and some talked about their most memorable experiences in the service.
"I missed everything being home cooked," said U.S. Navy vet Kenny Griffin, discharged in 1963.
Most listed the same items again and again, staples of Mama's dinner table — biscuits and gravy, fried apple pies, pinto beans with corn bread and "chow chow" relish, cold milk, pork, hamburgers, green beans.
"I missed biscuits with honey and butter," said Russell Edwards, who served in the U.S. Army until 1995.
Gary Hensley, discharged in 1970 from the U.S. Army after serving in Vietnam, said it wasn't just food, but those who used to surround him at the dinner table, that he missed.
"Christmas Day, 1969, was probably the hardest day to be away from home," he recalled.
At the time, Hensley was a 20-year-old infantryman serving with the 101st at Camp Evans in South Vietnam.
"We were on maneuvers that day, but we were brought to our base camp by helicopter for about four hours and a Christmas meal," Hensley said. "That was the first Christmas I had ever missed with my family."
He was later injured in the line of duty, an experience he spoke about from the pulpit on Sunday.
"I am still proud of my service to my country. I thank God for saving me physically and spiritually."
Bob Showalter served in the Army Air Corps (which became the U.S. Air Force) during World War II.
He recalls a time when food played an important — and peaceful — role in the war effort.
"Our plane participated in a food drop over Holland, whose populace was dying of starvation," Showalter said. "This, I thought, was a Godly mission of mercy instead of destruction."
He remembers one mission when he almost didn't make it back.
Showalter was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 "Flying Fortress" heavy bomber, so he was exposed to German anti-aircraft guns from the ground.
Flying at 25,000 feet, he had to wear a heated suit and oxygen mask.
"On one occasion, our plane became severely damaged by enemy fire that caused me to be denied the needed supply of oxygen.
"When I was beginning to pass out, a crew member plugged me up to an emergency bottle," Showalter said.
U.S. Army vet John E. Bryant remembers hauling ammunition to fellow soldiers in Germany during World War II, when enemy planes began flying overhead. "We crawled under the truck to take cover, not thinking if they hit the truck it would blow up.
"I was glad to be discharged."
Bob Baker, who served in the army in Korea from 1951-52, remembers harsh winters, "sometimes getting 40 below zero. It was great to get back home to my family."
Horace Cochran and his friend, Bill Moser, joined the U.S. Marines together in high school and went to Korea in the early 1950s.
Cochran said his most difficult time was hearing Moser had been killed in action.
"When I was discharged, I was proud to have served in the Marine Corps and to have the freedom that one has in these United States of America."
Serving in Furth-Nurnberg Germany after World War II, U.S. Army Capt. Olen Quesenberry of Galax had green beans and gravy biscuits on his mind — along with the fact that he was only one hour from the Russian "Iron Curtain" to the East, by tank.
He was a communications worker with the 7777 Signal Corps. "In those days, our only contact with home was by U.S. mail. A letter took about a week by air mail."
Jim Higgins worked on helicopters for the U.S. Army in Vietnam. "I felt somewhat patriotic since helicopters became such an important part of the war."
Russell Edwards served in the U.S. Army in Germany until 1995. During his time there, he toured Europe and saw beautiful sites "like medieval villages, castles and snow-capped mountains."
He also visited some reminders of wars past, like the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. "They were an eye-opening experience to the persecution of God's chosen."
He flew helicopters, drove tanks and was once sent on foot patrol in the mountains for three days.
Once again, food — or the lack of it — seasons the memory. "I remember... me and my sergeant picking silage corn, boiling and cooking it."
Mom's cooking can soothe the soul, but mothers also demand a lot from their sons — even when they're away serving their country.
Roger Poole served in the U.S. Air Force in Madrid, Spain, until 1961.
He missed home cooking, but had neglected to let his mother know.
"I had not written home in so long that my mother contacted the Red Cross and the Red Cross made contact with my commanding officer," Poole recalls.
"He told me, 'I can't make you write home, but I strongly suggest you write your mother.'"
Edward Alderman was stationed in Germany while in the army and spent another six years as a reservist until 1960.
He was an engineer and built bridges.
"I enjoyed seeing the palaces, churches and countryside when on leave," he said. "I did most of my traveling by train."
When Alderman was discharged, he said he felt lost. "Everything was so quiet."
Then, as he passed by the Statue of Liberty on his way home, "I felt free and relieved."
There she stood, a motherly symbol of America, holding aloft a torch as warm and inviting as a plate of mama's homemade biscuits.