NAWA, Afghanistan – For the U.S. Marines of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, this Thanksgiving Day in Afghanistan brought one overriding thing to be thankful for: They’re about to go home.
Within days, the Marines will return to Camp Pendleton, Calif., after a seven-month deployment that included engaging in firefights with the Taliban, dodging roadside bombs and trying to breathe life into a moribund local government.
Although four members of the battalion have been killed in action, Charlie Company has had no fatalities.
“I’m just thankful that all my Marine brothers in Charlie Company are going home to their families,” said Sgt. Sal Sanchez, of Riverside, Calif., who added that his holiday thoughts were with his wife, Maggie, and their children, Brandon, 3, and Julien, 1.
Although Marines at smaller outposts in this onetime Taliban stronghold enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, gravy, rice and Gatorade on Thursday, plans for a special dinner here at the larger Combat Outpost Cherokee went awry.
Three words: frozen pot roast.
A military mix-up meant that the cook was never alerted that a helicopter had brought two brick-hard 80-pound roasts. Sgt. Sean Ross, the cook, said that by the time he was told about them, it would have taken until 1 a.m. Friday to thaw and cook the meal. The pot roast, Ross said, would be served Friday.
“I don’t think people will care that much: We’re still going home,” Ross said, his M-16 at the ready in case Taliban fighters attempted a last-minute attack.
On Thanksgiving, Marines continued with their duties: mentoring Afghan police, manning checkpoints, patrolling the back roads of this farming region.
The day had special resonance in a country that may soon see an influx of new troops, with President Barack Obama expected to announce his long-awaited war strategy Tuesday.
“I’m thankful for the chance to serve. I know that sounds corny, but there’s not a lot of people who can say that,” said Staff Sgt. Pedro Cuadros, of Azusa, Calif.
On Thanksgiving night, the Marines at Cherokee had a Meal Ready to Eat of chicken breast, gravy, stuffing, Mexican-style corn and double chocolate fudge cake. The lack of turkey did not appear to cause much consternation.
Other service members, sick of MREs, bought cut-up chicken at a nearby bazaar, a long city block of mud stalls with straw roofs where you can pick up a live goat or lamb.
Turkeys bought weeks ago from Afghan farmers were spared their inevitable fate when judged not yet fat enough – although one turkey at Cherokee was traded for a duck to be eaten later.
At nearby Forward Operating Base Geronimo, the battalion headquarters, Marine Commandant Gen. James T. Conway arrived by helicopter to share a meal with his troops and congratulate them on a job well done.
Although Charlie Company had no casualties, nearly all Marines have had friends killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thoughts of them are never far away.
“I’m just thankful I had a day today,” Master Sgt. Julia Watson said, “because I know a lot of people who did not.”