Veteran sets place at holiday table for military away from home

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On Christmas Day in 1968 at a Navy base in Millington, Tenn., 18-year-old seaman apprentice Henry Hill sat alone in his barracks listening to "Light My Fire" by The Doors on a record player his mother had sent him.

It was his first Christmas away from his Pittsburgh home. Even his girlfriend in Tennessee went away for the holidays with her family.

"There is nothing like the magnitude of loneliness one feels when alone at Christmas," Mr. Hill recalls.

He spent a year with the Navy before moving to Colorado Springs, Colo., where he worked as a police officer near multiple air bases. There was always some lonely serviceman who needed a place to go for Christmas dinner. Mr. Hill, always one to open his door, developed a reputation as a Christmas host to those stuck at the base during the holidays.

Now living in Plum, Mr. Hill, 59, wants to make sure that all of the reserves based here or servicemen and women overseas who come home have a place to go for a holiday dinner.

"There are circumstances in which people don't have a place to go," he explained. "Sometimes, family doesn't come through, a girlfriend breaks up with you. It happens."

He's looking for local volunteer families to set an extra seat at their dinner table on Dec. 25 for that lonely soldier in need of a home-cooked meal. If you would like to volunteer or know of someone in the military who might need a home for the holidays, call Mr. Hill's dinner for the troops hot line at 1-888-569-7846.

Volunteers will submit their information for Mr. Hill's approval and will be on call around Christmas to be matched with a troop member.

Mr. Hill has a soft spot for those who defend the country.

"Those are our kids over there. It doesn't matter how you feel about this war. It matters that you support the kids over there fighting it."

Four years ago, Mr. Hill retired to Plum to be near his daughter. He soon found a passion for blogging and created www.ourboysoverthere. blogspot.com, a sort of electronic shout out for troops overseas that hail from Pennsylvania. As an amateur photographer, he takes photos of local events and scenery and posts them on his site, including local news, weather updates, scores from the latest Steelers game and more.

"I don't want them to think that the war or politics or celebrities is all they have to look at online," he said.

His posts always end with the encouraging and cautionary "Keep your head down."

Four years ago as a ham radio hobbyist, he came across a broadcast by and for World War II survivors, specifically those who were at Pearl Harbor. He began talking and meeting with these men. He took their photos and wrote down their stories of survival.

"I treated it like a crime scene investigation," he said. "I had to know everything about these guys."

This fascination led to a three-year project of tracking down 44 Pearl Harbor survivors from all branches of the military, including four military nurses. Mr. Hill traveled across America, recording their stories and meeting people like Edith Shain, the nurse from the famed Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor's stolen kiss on V-J Day that originally appeared in LIFE magazine.

Mr. Hill also posts these survivor stories on his blog to inspire our troops. "They need to know that someone else has been there and done that."


Kara Voorhees can be reached at kvoorhees@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.


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