Sharing Thanksgiving: A Soldier’s Hospitality House welcomes troops

Photos by ERIC J. SHELTON and contributed by BEN BLOKER

Soldiers prepare to eat a Thanksgiving meal in 2016 at A Soldier’s Hospitality House on Chaparral Road in Killeen.

This month Ben and Melody Bloker and five their children will open the doors of their home to welcome soldiers to share a Thanksgiving dinner.

Service members from Fort Hood will arrive solo, with a friend or in groups to celebrate the holiday away from post, in a family-friendly environment, at A Soldier’s Hospitality House.

The Blokers home is set at the end of a long gravel driveway on Chapparal Road in Killeen and is surrounded by 16 acres of open land dotted with recreational activities that include a 1.1 mile jogging trail, a disc golf course, basketball court, soccer field, gazebo and pavilion.

From the road, the home looks like a private residence. But when you enter, you realize its true purpose.

Soldiers play soccer in the yard.

A Soldier’s Hospitality House is a place where soldiers from Fort Hood can go to for a respite from their daily reality of Army life. For a few hours, or a night, it provides a safe place to enjoy Christian fellowship with a family and other soldiers, outdoor recreation, a quiet evening of watching TV, and a good home-cooked meal.

The home is open to soldiers six days a week (except Monday). Every Sunday, the Blokers, who are missionaries with Cadence International, and other volunteers serve Sunday dinner to 60 soldiers. Thursday evenings are reserved for dinner and Bible study. Soldiers sometimes trickle in during other nights of the week, but on Thanksgiving,

A Soldier’s Hospitality House is packed with troops for what has become an annual event.

“We took over the house in July 2015 and had our first Thanksgiving gathering that first year. We had 15 to 20 people. In 2016, 80 people came. This year we expect 80 people, some with kids,” Ben said.

Soldiers play cards while others eat and enjoy a holiday gathering at A Soldier’s Hospitality House in Killeen.

Guests will dine on turkey, ham and all the sides and desserts they can eat. Food is prepared by volunteers and family. There is a big-screen TV in the great room, a corner filled with musical instruments and plenty of space outdoors for after Thanksgiving dinner recreation.

Visitors to A Soldier’s Hospitality House are intentional, Ben said.
“People just don’t show up. They come through word of mouth, fliers they read in the base reception room, and through connections with the chaplain serving in the system.

“This is a safe place where people can come,” he continued. “Our hearts are for the single soldier.”

Meals, sports, music and fellowship aren’t the only activities at the House. There are monthly outreach day trips, like a paddle board day last month on Lady Bird Lake in Austin. These days, Ben and a volunteer crew travel to Houston to help with the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Harvey.

A life of sharing

Ben Bloker, director of A Soldier’s Hospitality House, prays with soldiers before enjoying a Thanksgiving meal in 2016.

Opening their doors to soldiers is not a new concept for Melody and Ben Bloker, who met at a hospitality house near Ramstein Air Base in Germany in 1995.

Melody is a self-proclaimed Air Force brat. Her dad’s last assignment was at Ramstein from 1988 to 1990. During that time she became involved with the youth ministry group of Cadence and felt a call to serve. When her father’s tour was finished and the family returned to the states, Melody enrolled at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and completed her degree before returning to Germany in 1995 to serve with the youth ministry group.

Ben was a young photojournalist serving in the Air Force and received a second assignment to Ramstein Air Base in 1995. His career fulfilled his dreams of being around military aircraft and adventure, and won him awards and accolades for his work. But despite his recognition something was missing from his life.

One day he walked into a hospitality house in Kaiserslautern, Germany, where he met Melody. She was a youth ministry leader and he volunteered for the hospitality group.

“For five years I went to the hospitality house,” Ben said. “I grew up Christian but never owned my faith. The house director taught me how to lead a Bible study, play music. Those five years were the most transformative for me. I lived with people who had all things in common. It was a community and it made a difference. That moment transformed my trajectory.”

Soldiers play cards while others eat and enjoy a holiday gathering at A Soldier’s Hospitality House in Killeen.

He began working in the Cadence youth group community where he ministered to children with Melody. But he was still at a crossroads in his life.

Ben recognized that working as a missionary with Cadence International was his true “call to life.”

“Do I believe or do I just walk away,” he said, speaking of his impassioned faith through Cadence. He began to envision himself working in ministry with Cadence International. But he needed 30 hours of Bible study to supplement his bachelor degree.

He decided to attend Bible school and go back out with the Cadence Youth Ministry when he finished.

Melody and Ben married in 1996 in Germany, where three of their children were born.

Many hands help prepare meals at A Soldier’s Hospitality House on Chaparral Road in Killeen.

His last military assignment before retiring was in Utah, where he worked as a DOC Flight Superintendent 2nd Combat Camera and later as Superintendent 2nd Combat Camera before retiring from the Air Force in 2014 after a 24-year career.

During that last year, Cadence International contacted the Blokers to see if they would be a good fit as on-site missionaries at A Soldier’s Hospitality House in Killeen.

“It was a weeklong interview process,” Ben said. “I had to teach a Bible study, meet with counselors, and was vetted to see if I was a good fit for the mission and if the mission was a good fit for me.”

It also had to be a good fit for their growing family.

“We considered if this was what we wanted to take on,” Ben said. “It was one the biggest military communities. We were honored to be asked to come here at this higher capacity ministry.”

“We were willing to go where we were needed,” Melody said.

There’s also lots of space to gather outside.

Cadence extended the position to Ben and Melody and in 2015, after a year of fundraising, they moved into the hospitality house, bringing their own furniture and creating an environment that welcomes all who step inside.

“I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Ben added. “That five-year period (with Cadence at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany) was the richest, most significant time.”

“Wherever we lived we opened our house to soldiers like a hospitality house opened their doors to us,” Melody said, speaking of the many places they lived while in the military.

“We love our meetings. Soldiers come into our house and are part of the family. The kids look at them as big brothers and sisters. When someone new comes in, they feel loved and welcome.”