Our House is Your House

By Beacon Staff

Sgt. Charli Schmaus is about 20 feet in the air at the Kalispell Armed Forces Reserve Center, leaning over the railing of a scissor-lift while holding a six-sided snowflake the size of a dinner plate. She grabs the top of the Christmas tree and wrangles the snowflake into position at the tree’s apex.

Behind her, Staff Sgt. Amber Callaghan has a tight grip on Schmaus’ camouflage uniform. Once the snowflake takes its prominent position, Callaghan and Schmaus begin wrapping the tree with multi-colored lights.

The tree decorations were just the beginning of the center’s transformation to a winter wonderland as the battalion prepares to host the 22nd annual Christmas at Our House dinner on Dec. 10 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The dinner is a way for the members of the Montana Army National Guard to thank the local community for its ardent support, Callaghan said. And this year’s dinner takes on extra importance for the 495th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion.

“We deploy next year,” Callaghan said. “The likelihood that the event will happen next year is pretty slim.”

The battalion is headed for a nine-month mission in Afghanistan, preceded by two months of training at a mobility site, Callaghan said. The date is not yet set, but Callaghan expects to head to training in the third quarter of next year.

Service members are spending this holiday season knowing that they will not see their families for Thanksgiving or Christmas next year, she said. They also know they won’t be able spend their annual evening saying thanks to the community.

“It’s kind of bittersweet putting it all together this year,” Callaghan said.

The annual feast is the last of its kind in the state, Callaghan said. Most armories in major cities used to host holiday meals, but Kalispell is the only one to continue the tradition.

During last year’s event, the armory served more than 3,100 people 2,000 pounds of potatoes, 800 pounds of green beans, 50 turkeys, 50 hams and a plethora of desserts, Callaghan said. Santa Claus also visited, passing out gifts to children.

A peek into the armory’s stainless steel kitchen shows just how much food this meal takes. Multiple 50-pound bags of onions sit near boxes of stuffing, and the freezer is packed with frozen turkeys and ham. Callaghan anticipates that the cooks will make 30 gallons of gravy to top everything off.

“This is where the magic happens,” she said in the kitchen. “We have this gigantic, massive meal but the food is insanely good.”

The logistics of serving thousands of people a quality meal are compounded with how to get them to the table. Callaghan said Eagle Transit will have bus lines dedicated to getting diners to the armory, so they ride without worrying about parking lot congestion.

Part of the dinner’s appeal for armory service members is seeing how diverse the Flathead community is, Callaghan said. Residents of all ages and backgrounds sit together to eat, regardless of where they live or how much they have in their bank accounts.

“It’s like a little melting pot of people,” she said.

And that makes it worth it for people like Callaghan and Schmaus, who have been planning the dinner for months. The Flathead is supportive of military personnel in ways that other communities are not, Callaghan said.

“We are really, really thankful to the community and the Flathead Valley,” Callaghan said. “Everywhere we go we get thanked. If we go out to lunch in uniform, we very rarely pay for lunch.”

One area of support can be found on 880 acres near Ashley Lake, where the Gamma family lives. For the past six years, the Gammas have donated the giant tree the armory uses for the holiday dinner, and service members can visit and camp on the family’s land any time.

“They have been a tremendous support to our people,” Callaghan said.

Dianne Gamma said her husband, Joe, started inviting military personnel out to the wooded land as a way to show them his family cares.

“Joe just always felt like we’re not in the military, but you want to support them, even in a little way,” Dianne Gamma said. “They help so many people. We’re donating a tree, but they’re helping everybody so I think that part is really important.”

Shortly after last year’s dinner, Joe Gamma passed away. Callaghan said his presence would be sorely missed at this dinner and in the future. There is a photo and collage to honor Joe Gamma at this year’s Christmas dinner.

Dianne Gamma said she and her children plan on continuing the Christmas tree tradition as a way to show that they back local service members.

“We feel it’s important to support our military troops,” she said, “even if it is just a tree.”

Christmas at Our House takes place on Dec. 10 at the Kalispell Armed Forces Reserve Center located at 2989 U.S. Highway 93 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.