FALLUJAH, Iraq – It was before sunrise on Thanksgiving morning and a U.S. Marine sat on a frigid concrete curb, reflecting on a holiday spent in his violent patch of western Iraq.
From the Middle East to Central Asia and beyond, U.S. service members such as Staff Sgt. Dominco Washington passed a day meant to celebrate American bounty in far-flung deployments, longing for home while focusing on their missions.
“There are times when you think it would be nice to be home, nice to be with the ones you love,” Washington, of the 3rd Reconnaissance Military Transition Team, said while waiting in the dark along a wind-swept street for a company of Marines searching houses.
“But you can’t think too much about yourself, get too down and be a disruption to the other guys,” said the 30-year-old fom Norfolk, Va., who lives with his wife and 10-year-old daughter on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
From their positions across Iraq’s dangerous Anbar province, more than 20,000 Marines quickly and quietly marked Thanksgiving amid their work, while trying to bring some homestyle traditions to Iraq.
There was a flag football tournament on fields of hard-packed sand that became blanketed by blinding dust whenever medical evacuation helicopters took off or landed nearby.
“Thanksgiving is food and football. That’s what we do every year. It’s America, even if we’re in Iraq,” said Cpl. Daniel J. English, a native of Antwerp, Ohio, in the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion.
A television lounge at Camp Fallujah was showing NFL games live, even though they didn’t start here until the middle of the night. Cardboard turkeys, pumpkins and pilgrims in belt-buckle hats were plastered around many buildings.
Inside the base’s two sprawling mess halls, three-foot turkey sculptures fashioned out of butter greeted the troops, who piled their trays high with roast turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and cornbread, as well as pumpkin and four other varieties of pie. The menu also included prime rib, crab legs, shrimp cocktail, fried chicken and collard greens.
“It’s the most important day of the year for us,” said Raymond Yung, director of one of the food service crews at Camp Fallujah.
Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter arrived in Iraq on Wednesday and visited the camp while touring several Anbar locations.
“The morale seems very good. Yes, they have thoughts of home as everybody does, but I think that they recognize the importance of their mission, and many have told me that very directly and without prompting,” Winter said. “The sense that the sailors and the Marines have is that they are making progress.”
In South Korea, U.S. Air Force personnel at Osan Air Base chowed down on turkey and mashed potatoes.
The two Koreas are technically still at war, and reminders of the uneasy armistice signed in 1953 abound at Osan, about 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula. Patriot anti-missile batteries line the golf course, and the latest edition of the base newspaper carried articles on what to do in case of attack by chemical or biological weapons.
Staff Sgt. Benjamin Short, 26, who fixes electronics equipment on F-16 fighter jets, said being at Osan was better than Balad, Iraq, where he spent last Thanksgiving.
“They have a lot of random mortar attacks on that base and that’s frustrating. You don’t know where they’re going to hit,” said Short, who is from Seattle. “They’re more of a nuisance but they have hurt some people pretty bad.”
In Iraq, special convoys delivered turkey to some of the Marines manning remote outposts, but others had to settle for the same rations as a normal Thursday.
“You get used to it, missing the holidays, because you’re always gone,” said Cpl. Adam Kruse of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s Headquarters Group.