A Marine’s Thanksgiving in Afghanistan
A dust storm had descended on the Marines of Weapons Company, stationed in the district center of Now Zad, Helmand province. Huge pillars the color of leather rolled through the camp, one after another, cutting visibility to thirty or forty feet in the middle of them. Then the rain started, tamping the dust down and clearing the air. Our Pakistani-American translator, Yousef, raised an eyebrow at my mild delight with this change of events.
“This rain will drop the temperature ten to fifteen degrees in the next half hour,” he muttered. “Just watch.”
He wasn’t wrong. Midday is usually t-shirt weather here but I was still wrapped in three layers plus a beanie as I shuffled over to the governor’s compound around noon. The rain came and went, not too heavy yet, but by January they’d be dealing with weeks straight of heavy downpour.
I greeted the company commander, Cpt. Ryan Schramel, in the midst of a meeting with local elders from a village still under Taliban control. They had come, they said, because they were interested in having the central government take over affairs in their village. But they wanted a half-dozen of their village’s young men released from detention first, as a gesture of goodwill. The meeting didn’t go much of anywhere; they’d said the same thing last week and the request had been passed up the chain of command, but a response would take weeks, at least.
We ate lunch with the governor then returned to base. So far, besides a few ironically-delivered “Happy thanksgivings” between the Marines of the unit I was embedded with, not much in the way of Turkey Day-ness had happened here.
But there was smoke wafting up from the yard near the chow hall and I kept hearing people mentioning something about fifteen hundred (three o’clock in the real world). I ambled that way and found a half dozen people, including the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Bill Vivian, clustered around oildrum barbecues grilling up steaks and heating smoked turkey under a damp iron sky.
I chatted with them a while, and soon an enormous line of laughing enlisted Marines—officers eat last in the Corps—had assembled beside the chow hall. Crates of food were shuttled about and suddenly, unexpectedly, Thanksgiving was happening.
As the Marines streamed through the mess hall they traded happy Thanksgivings with the commanding officers, though (as in all things Marine) a simple ‘oo-rah’ was an acceptable substitute. Steaming trays and cans of root beer were ferried out the door and onto long trestle tables laden with five different kinds of hot sauce. Soon the sergeants and the officers passed through, the line thinned, and eating became the order of the day.
None of these men and women will get to spend their Thanksgiving Day this year with their family, but they do get to spend it with their loved ones. Their brothers in arms, comrades, lifesavers and bunkmates. They have a bond that civilians, outside observers like myself, can only speculate on. They crowded into the mess tent, yelled and threw hotsauce at one another, and underneath the camo and the rain and the dust you could see the ghosts of a million slaughtered turkeys, hooting softly. The spirit of Thanksgiving had come.
I rejoined the civil affairs group, where I’m embedded, at our tent where we crowded round a plywood table and traded jokes and insults and stories of our amorous conquests. Yousef offered his ham up and a debate ensued as to the merits of pumpkin pie (which we did not have) over sweet potato (which we did). After eating cigars were lit, and we contemplated the naps that we would have taken, were we back home.
At the grilling drums earlier I’d shot the wind with CWO3 Frederick Keeney. When I asked where he was from, he paused. “Well,” he said frowning, “I’m stationed in California.” He thinks a moment, then smiles. “But I’m from the Marines. I’ve been in nineteen years; that’s where I live. It’s a small village, it’s just spread all over the world.”
Next year, perhaps, the Marines of Weapons Company will spend Thanksgiving with their families in the United States. This year they spend it with their family here. The smoked turkey may taste like latex but the steaks are solid and the company is pretty damn good.
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