Staff Sgt. Zachary Huston missed seeing his family during most of the fall. He was deployed from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst along with members of the Air Force's 621st Contingency Response Wing to Liberia, where they provided much-needed food and medical supplies during the Ebola crisis in that West African nation.
When Huston finished his work in Operation United Assistance, he was placed in a controlled monitoring area for 21 days to make sure he hadn't picked up the deadly virus.
So he also missed Thanksgiving with his wife, Katie, and their 3-year-old son, Micah.
On Wednesday, the tables were turned. Instead of helping others, Huston was being helped.
He and his family were among 300 military families receiving donated food, courtesy of Operation Homefront Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and three New Jersey Walmart stores. Tens of thousands of dollars of food and other supplies were given away.
"This allows us to spend time together as a family and not worry about going to the store and making food," said Huston, 30, who lives on the base. "One of the things we give up [during military service] is family."
"This is a blessing," he said. "Hopefully, I won't have to go anywhere for Christmas."
Operation Homefront, a national nonprofit with 2,500 volunteers, has provided emergency help and financial assistance to the families of service members and wounded warriors since 2002.
This year, it teamed up with Walmart stores in Burlington Township, Lumberton, and Cinnaminson to also donate meals for families at the base as part of a morale program.
Fourteen Walmart workers and six Lockheed Martin employees from the company's Moorestown campus helped members of the 99th Regional Support Command, where the event was held, hand out the meals.
"It's controlled chaos," said Matt McCue, program manager for the field office of Operation Homefront Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, as a line formed in the building. "We're prepared for 300. Come and get your stuff."
All families were given a $20 gift certificate, which could be used for a turkey, and two bags of nonperishable food from Walmart at a total cost of more than $10,000. Inside the bags were yams, green beans, corn, corn bread, mashed potatoes, pancake mix, syrup, apple juice, cream of mushroom soup, evaporated milk, stuffing, and chicken broth.
"What these ladies and gentlemen do for us is amazing," said Travis Stumpf, manager of the Walmart on Route 541 in Burlington Township. "This is just to show our respect for their service to us."
"I've been with Walmart 10 years, and hands down, this is the coolest thing I've ever done," he said. "I hope we do this again next year."
Wednesday's event was the first of its kind by Operation Homefront in the tristate region, said McCue, though others have been held at locations across the country over the last five years.
The nonprofit provided sturdy "Thirty-one" tote bags loaded with microwavable bakeware, plates, cups, marshmallows, and other items, costing about $30,000.
"The expense of the holiday season often impacts the budgets of our more junior members significantly," said Pete Stinson, executive director of Operation Homefront Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey. "This year, we are helping them bring the celebration home and show that we are thankful for the sacrifices they have made for our country."
A large drill hall at the 99th Regional Support Command building was covered with bags, which went quickly between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. as families stopped by. Some came with their children who were visited by a Santa Claus.
"We are willing hosts," said Cheryl Davis, family program director for the 99th Regional Support Command. "It's great when we take care of our military community."
"Look at the joy on their faces; that alone is worth a million bucks," she said. "When I see my family happy, I'm happy."
Some soldiers who were recently deployed, such as Huston, have been looking forward to spending time with family.
"I think we make a meal from this next week," said his wife, Katie, 34. "Being in the military is great, but every little bit helps."
Nearby, Staff Sgt. Benjamin Floyd and his family also stopped by. Floyd, 29, who works with satellite communications, was joined by his wife, Carrie, 29, and their children, Emily, 5, and Daniel, 2.
"I didn't know about this until my wife mentioned it," he said. "It's definitely a blessing."
Saving money is especially important to military families, said Carrie Floyd. "We try to make most of our Christmas gifts because it's tough," she said.
The giveaway "helps people on tight budgets, especially the junior sailors," said Navy Petty Officer Anique Sands, 28, who came with her daughter Myami, 6, and lives on the Lakehurst section of the 60-square-mile base straddling Burlington and Ocean Counties. "I hope this will continue."
Walking away with two Walmart bags and the large tote, Army Sgt. Sharon Young appreciated the holiday help, too.
"It sure is nice," said Young, 50, who lives on the base. "It's very generous of them to think of us."