ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Tullahoma resident Wilford “J.J.” Johnson wasn’t sure what to expect as he made his way to Arnold Lakeside Center last month to attend a gathering of retired military, veterans and active-duty service members.
“Normally, when you have things like this, you have just a few people,” he said.
But Johnson, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1965-93 and whose service included three overseas tours, was pleasantly surprised by what he observed upon his arrival. Vehicles nearly filled the ALC parking lot. The majority of seats inside the center were occupied, and the chairs that weren’t were likely to be claimed by those in line to fill their plates with complimentary hamburgers, hot dogs and desserts. Outside, children of those in attendance were playing on inflatables while others were making their way to Woods Reservoir to spend some time on the lake.
As he took in the food, fun and fellowship, Johnson said his first Military Appreciation: Past, Present and Future Picnic was “much more” than he expected.
“I think it just goes to show people are open for something like this, want something like this and need something like this,” he said.
The picnic, held each year at Arnold Air Force Base as a way to say “thank you” to past and present service members and their families, was Oct. 12. The event was presented by the Arnold AFB Services and Personnel offices and the Military Aid Station and was sponsored by the Air Force Sergeants Association, the Arnold Community Council, BlueCross/BlueShield, Coca-Cola, Geneva McKelvey, and the Pie Safe, a bakery located in Morrison.
This marks the second year the picnic was held under the “Past, Present and Future” banner. More than two decades ago, the AFSA began hosting a yearly picnic at the ALC for veterans and patients from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Murfreesboro.
As overall military enrollment began to decline, the AFSA was finding it more and more difficult to prepare for the picnic.
To keep the event going, the Arnold AFB Services and Personnel offices teamed up and immediately began discussing ways to open up the picnic to even more attendees. AEDC team members from these offices soon landed on the idea of inviting retired military and veterans to represent the past, active-duty military to represent the present, and the families of both of these groups to represent the future.
“We called it ‘Military Appreciation Picnic: Past, Present and Future’ because the past is represented by the veterans and the retirees who came before us; the present are the active-duty military and DOD civilians currently working to defend our country; and the future is represented by the family members, who need to understand what we do in order to bring them into service for their country,” said Barbara Stewart, director of the Arnold AFB Services Office.
Along with the free lunch buffet, this year’s picnic once again featured a variety of events for picnickers of all ages. Activities included horse-drawn buggy rides, cornhole, boat rides, live music, and a bounce house and games for the children present.
“Thinking of everybody, including the kids, that’s a good touch,” Johnson said.
This year, information from agencies and organizations such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and BlueCross/BlueShield was made available to attendees via several tables set up near the ALC entrance.
“The major changes this year came from the representatives that the Personnel Office and the Medical Aid Station brought in to provide information on the various VA and retiree needs,” Stewart said. “We were also able to get more commercial sponsorship to help out this year to make things even more special.”
Ralph Dietz of Shelbyville has attended the picnic for the past several years. Dietz, who served in the Army from 1967-69, said it is the combination of seeing fellow veterans and the activities offered that keeps him coming back year after year.
“We have a great time out here,” he said. “We take the carriage rides, do the boat ride. It’s always fun.”
Reflecting upon the event several days later, Stewart said she felt the second incarnation of the Military Appreciation: Past, Present and Future Picnic went well, adding the picnic was once again well-received.
“Everyone there liked the addition of the informational booths which helped them understand where they could go to get help with health-related issues, finances, home improvement and other concerns we all may have,” she said. “Everyone I talked to was very positive in their reactions.”