Pennsburg Air National Guardsman returns home for Christmas after helping families in need
Air National Guardsman Jim Thompson knows exactly what makes being home for the holidays so special.
“It’s all those little things that make it nice to be home,” he said, noting he is ecstatic to be back in Pennsburg with his wife and three children this Christmas season after spending most of the year in Texas. “Now my wife will have her partner back and I’m actually looking forward to doing things around the house – like shoveling snow, Christmas shopping and even food shopping.
“I don’t have a car on base and I don’t get to talk to my wife or kids very often. I walk three-quarters of a mile each way to get to the food hall…When you’re on base, even off time isn’t really your own. You get home and you get to [breathe a sigh of relief].”
Thompson, 39, joined the U.S. Air National Guard two years ago. After having trouble making ends meet as an electrician for almost two decades, the family, including wife Doren, son Jonathan, 17, daughter Emily, 14 and daughter Julianne, 10, decided it would be best if Jim joined the military. There not only could he serve his country but also get a college education and benefit from the military’s other offerings.
He had to drop nearly 50 pounds in order to join with the help of a personal trainer, who is also a family friend.
“It was not an easy decision at all,” he said of enlisting and joining the ranks of other airmen who are only a few years older than his 17-year-old. “But we had to figure out something to do. I was able to be with my kids every day and cater my schedule around their activities like soccer games. Now I missed a year of their lives.”
But Jim – described by Doren as someone who always wants to serve others – has admittedly made his mark when he was simply looking to get by in Texas, where he underwent basic training in San Antonio, and at Sheppard Air Force Base, where he is currently stationed following a stint in Biloxi, Miss.
As a leader who is looked up to by his peers, Thompson decided last month to organize a Thanksgiving food drive at Sheppard to benefit the community around his base. He soon found out there were just as many families who needed help closer to home.
“With the Air Force, a lot of stuff you hear is bad, negative. My goal was to get a lot of food off base and out to the community. I was surprised there were so many airmen’s families in need.”
Thompson made the food drive a competition between his squadron, the 365th, where he works in integrated avionics, and the base’s five other squadrons, complete with a trophy for the winner.
And thanks to one of his superiors, the winners would also have the added incentive of being relieved of “GI duty,” where squadrons take turns cleaning the dorm, top to bottom.
“I had people handing me money in the halls; one airman donated 500 items on his own. That’s four or five long trips from the food store walking all the way with a shopping cart…I was amazed,” Thompson said of the drive.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of all was his determination to make the donation a success, even when the going got tough. Thompson, who has suffered a broken finger and thumb since enlisting, ended up in the Intensive Care Unit at the base hospital after a simple operation caused a spinal fluid leak during the middle of the effort.
He fielded and made phone calls from his hospital bed. And thanks to his fellow airmen, his wife was also at his side. They collected, in a very short time, enough money to pay for her plane ticket, rental car and hotel room so the couple could be together as he recuperated and the family wouldn’t have to deal with the financial hardship.
“I can’t even begin to explain it,” he said with emotion in his voice. “I’m 39 years old here and I feel like Norm from ‘Cheers.’ I stick out like a sore thumb. To have them come up with everything we needed, I was dumbfounded, shocked. It was overwhelming. I can’t say enough about them.”
In total the airmen collected a whopping 7,300 pounds of food for the drive; 1,800 of which came from Thompson’s squadron – the eventual winner.
The food was bagged and 249 turkeys were delivered to the families who needed them at the base’s Airmen and Family Readiness Center the week of Thanksgiving. More than $1,800 in cash was also collected, which was used to supply families with hams for Christmas.
Thompson said he hopes the drive will continue to be a success and that the trophy gets passed around for many years to come.
But for his family, their main wish is to simply spend time with the husband and dad they have missed so much. They have presents already wrapped under a Christmas tree they chose when he came home a few months ago.
It’s emotional for me,” Doren said of having her husband home on leave until Jan. 2. “You’re by yourself pretty much for everything. It’s hard, but knowing who he is, he loves to help other people, so he’s meant to do this. With the benefits go the sacrifices and we’re so grateful he’s able to do this.”
And who was first in line to welcome him home this Christmas?
“I called dibs on the first hug,” said daughter, Julianne, 10. “I’m happy he’s here.”