SPRINGFIELD, Mo. With a motorcycle escort leading the way, the buses from Ft. Leonard Wood pulled into Bass Pro Shops in Springfield where over 300 soldiers then passed beneath a giant American flag and were greeted by well-wishers as they walked down a red carpet.
"Our home is always your home here," said Bass Pro Founder and CEO Johnny Morris, who greeted the soldiers along with Springfield Mayor Ken McClure.
The honoring ceremony was part of "Home for the Holiday", where the city of Springfield and Bass Pro teamed with other businesses, nonprofit organizations and individual donors to host service members in a day of food and fun.
McClure learned that Fort Leonard Wood typically stands down for two weeks over the holidays. But each year there are several hundred soldiers who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to go home.
That's when the plan went into action to give the soldiers a home-away-from-home.
"You will find this day to be hopefully one that you will remember for a long, long time from a very grateful community," McClure told the soldiers at the welcoming ceremony.
When the song, "I'll be Home for Christmas" was performed during the ceremony, you could see from the emotional reaction that it struck a chord with a lot of soldiers in the audience.
"For some of them it could be their first holiday away from home and family," explained Maj. General Donna Martin, Ft. Leonard Wood's Commanding General. "So events like these where the community opens its arms really means a lot to them."
The soldiers, who represented all branches of the service, started with a tour of Wonders of Wildlife on a day that would also include two meals, a movie, and a variety of entertainment options from virtual reality games to bowling to trampoline jumping. Those activities were made possible by over a dozen donating businesses.
At the Wonders of Wildlife the highlight for most of the service members was feeding the rays. But even these brave soldiers seemed a little timid at times to put their hands in the water and let the rays pass over their fingers to grab the food.
"You take these little fish and put it in the water and they come and snatch it right out of your hand," said Air Force trainee Matthew Spoto from Illinois. "It just tickled me. I was a little nervous."
"You're just scared and a little hesitant at first," added Gabe Aranda, a Marine from Michigan. "Once you did it, it was exciting."
For Morris bringing in Bass Pro to do something special for those who serve-and-protect is personal.
"It was 75 years ago this very day my dad was over in Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge," Morris said. "Then to be there today and see all those young people and what they're doing for us, it can't help but get to you at little bit."
Even if you're a Grinch, it was hard not to be touched by what this day represented.
Vanek Star, an Army vet from Bolivar, was dressed as the Grinch taking video of the soldiers arrival on his cellphone.
"When I was 17 and going through basic (training) it was a tough time being away from home," he said. "But seeing all these folks here supporting the troops is awesome!"