NOVEMBER 24, 2022 – Back in 2003, I was spending my Thanksgiving away from my family on a deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom in Southwest Asia. It wasn’t my first deployment but it was my first Thanksgiving away from home.
First, as many veterans already know, when you are deployed in support of an overseas military operation, you pretty much work every day. As I recall, my Thanksgiving began like every other deployed day — which by that time had been more than five months into the deployment.
I remember getting up at my usual 5 a.m. time to get ready for work. That involved packing up my personals, a towel and hiking quietly out of the tent over to the shower facility about 1/8th of a mile away. After getting pretty for the day, I put on my desert camouflage uniform and headed off to breakfast and then to work at the Combined Air Operations Center — U.S. Central Command’s headquarters for air operations in their area of responsibility.
I remember the walk to the dining facility tent for breakfast was in temperatures that were fairly comfortable. November in that area of the world begins one of the cooler months where daily highs only got up to 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It wasn’t like when I went there in June and dealt with temps as high as 110 degrees.
At the dining facility tent, which was essentially an area of five large tents connected together, I noticed a sign at the front that said later that evening they would be serving a Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, mashed potatoes and all sorts of other dishes. I was a bit surprised of the spread that was planned given the fact that we were in a tent city in a fairly remote area. Nonetheless, I was happy to see the meal plans and looked forward to the evening meal.
After a tasty bit of powdered eggs, toast, and coffee, I headed out on the walk to work. Now while I can’t say what I did at work that day nor what the work environment looked like, I can say that all the same people I worked with every day were there just like me doing the exact same type of work we did leading up to that Thanksgiving day. It looked and seemed like a normal day but the thought of the evening meal stayed in the back of my mind.
I recall at about midway through our work day came an announcement over the phone that we would be allowed to leave early if we finished up our tasks a little quicker. You didn’t have to ask me twice. I wrapped up my normal 10-hour work day within a half-hour after the call making it a 7-hour work day.
And, the best part was it was two hours from when the evening meal would start. I packed up all my work items, put them into my ruck sack and out the door I went back to my tent. At my tent, I took some time to write a letter to my wife and family who were then living at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.
In the letter, I wrote about what the day was like and how the weather was. I also described what the camp had planned for Thanksgiving dinner.
I told her that it in no way matches up to what we would have had put together as a family but it was nice to know that it would be a meal that we could enjoy with each other and maybe, just maybe, give us a small feel of home.
I also said in my letter home that I appreciated the recent care package she sent.
It had some homemade cookies, some outdoor magazines, candy, and some coffee which I would share with my comrades. It meant a lot to get the cookies especially because they were Bobbi’s special chocolate chip cookies.
I received about five dozen in the care package but I think they only lasted about a day because I shared them with all kinds of people at work.
I just set them out by the coffee pot there and they disappeared from there. Of course I hogged a couple dozen for myself because, well, that’s just how that goes.
I finished the letter, put it in an envelope, and headed to our special deployed Thanksgiving dinner, dropping the letter at the postal tent along the way.
When I got to the dining hall tent, there was a very long line of folks but it seemed to be moving fairly quickly.
I waited in line with some pals for about 30 minutes before we got inside the door. When I got in, it seemed like the place completely transformed from the lunch meal I had in the same place just a few hours before.
There were white tablecloths on all the tables. And, at each table, were letters and notes from people back home in the United States.
The food was all set up in one of the adjacent room tents. As it turns out, a bunch of U.S. companies in cooperation with the United Services Organization, or USO, had the large meal shipped over from the states.
Our best and brightest military chefs worked for the better part of two days getting it all ready for Thanksgiving and they did all the decorating.
Over some speakers came some familiar holiday tunes that included some Christmas tunes even though it was Thanksgiving.
I just remember seeing a lot of eating, laughing and people looking happy.
Those happy faces were a change from what I normally saw at dinner time at the dining hall tent so I knew everyone in the room was thankful to be having a little taste of home.
I ended up eating about three helpings of turkey and the other fixings. All the while, I sat there feeling thankful for the people I was there with supporting the mission we were supporting. I was glad to among those many people who were aways from their families as well because they ended up being my family that far away from home.
That was the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom and that Thanksgiving took place only a short time after I had returned from Iraq where I was forward deployed for some time. I was thankful just to have survived those several months leading up to the holiday.
My deployed Thanksgiving may have seemed somewhat uneventful in this story but think about being in a foreign land far away from your home and family on this ever-so-special holiday about family togetherness.
Just being away from my loved ones was tough enough and missing the holiday with them was even tougher.
So this Thanksgiving, as you gather around your table to cut the turkey, I ask that you say a few words to each other to remember those who can’t be home for the holiday.
Be thankful for their sacrifice and willingness to serve in places that 99 percent of Americans will never see.
And, be thankful for their service to protect the freedoms that all of us as Americans enjoy every day.
Story by Scott Sturkol
Fort McCoy Public Affairs Office