Thanksgiving At War

C.J. Chivers
U.S. Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division enjoy a Thanksgiving meal at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Afghanistan on Nov. 22, 2007. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Chief Warrant Officer Matt Cole was seething. He did not want to eat. Sitting in the left-side seat of a Black Hawk helicopter on Thanksgiving Day in 2005, he announced he would skip the holiday meal.

Cole, a pilot in the 6th Battalion of the 101st Aviation Brigade, had just landed behind another Black Hawk on Forward Operating Base MacKenzie, a forlorn and besieged airstrip near Samarra, Iraq, that militants frequently attacked with mortars and ground-to-ground rockets.

It was late in a long day of shuttling the assistant division commander from base to base so the general could serve Thanksgiving turkey to troops. Cole was missing his family, and the brief stops did not allow time for him to rotate his crew through the food lines so they might eat.

When the helicopters’ wheels settled onto MacKenzie’s gravel, the general told the aircrews to shut down and eat. Cole refused. He did not want to fake holiday cheer. He said he would wait in his aircraft with a book. His co-pilot asked him to reconsider. “‘We have no one here but each other,’” Cole remembers him saying. “‘I’m asking you as a friend: Please come eat Thanksgiving dinner with me.’”

Feeling guilt-tripped, Cole followed his friend through the line, glumly accepted a tray of food and sat down. He looked up at a big-screen TV and saw Tiger Woods on an Armed Forces Network broadcast as he lifted his plastic silverware to eat.

In quick succession, two rockets slammed into MacKenzie and exploded.

The tables around Cole became a bedlam of shouts, dumped food and fleeing soldiers.

He dashed with the Black Hawk crews onto the airfield and saw that one of the rockets had struck a few feet in front of his aircraft, splattering the left-side door and windscreen with shrapnel. He had been spared injury, maybe death, by agreeing to sit for a meal he did not want.

This year is the 19th Thanksgiving since the beginning of the wars, occupations, operations and deployments that together form what the Pentagon calls the global war on terrorism. Across all this time and terrain, a few million American service members, and those who labored beside them, have accumulated vast and varied observances of a quintessential American holiday spent at war.

Earlier this year, The New York Times asked service members, veterans and civilians who have celebrated Thanksgiving in a conflict zone to share their photographs and memories. Separately, I queried veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Together they submitted images of meals they shared and stories that ranged from nostalgic to grim.

Like combat service itself, Thanksgivings for troops have been wildly uneven experiences. Depending on each place and time, dinners and celebrations veered between scarcity and excess, spectacle and sorrow, isolation and crowds. But common themes inform veteran memories, including the longing for home caused by separation from families and lifelong rituals, the bonds many veterans formed with fellow troops, and recollections of rich palettes of emotions associated with the particular circumstances troops lived in while deployed.

And then there was the hunt for a hearty and satisfying meal, or even a feast.

In the U.S. military, a force capable of logistical absurdities, some troops were regaled with ice sculptures, chocolate carvings and even a human-size unit mascot made from butter, along with heaping plates of turkey and all the fixings, hot coffee and desserts. Air Force Maj. Maura Harkins, assigned in 2016 to an operations shop at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, remembers celebrating “with a great group of people I was deployed with.”

“We even got to watch the Macy’s parade that evening!” she said. “Nicely set up events like this help with the homesickness.”

Troops at midsize bases often found that the military (or their peers) managed to put out traditional spreads and share them with those on duty. Dave Lyle, then an Air Force captain and B-52 crew member, flew over Afghanistan in 2001, not long after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The flights could be interminably long, from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, to Afghanistan and back. He was living on the USNS GySgt Fred W. Stockham in the base’s lagoon and returned late on Thanksgiving to find that the ship’s merchant mariners had saved turkey dinners for the aircraft’s crew, a gesture he remembers warmly. “Five of us shared a quiet yet exuberant dinner together in the darkened galley,” he said.

Tara Heidger, an Army intelligence specialist during the surge of combat forces in Iraq in 2007, had another means of making do. Her mother sent her a butternut squash from Wisconsin to Baghdad, where Heidger was posted, along with marshmallows and brown sugar. “I microwaved them in the battalion headquarters,” she said. “It smelled up the entire building, but I had fresh squash for my Thanksgiving dinner, and it was delicious.”

Ethan Frisch, an aid worker for the Aga Khan Foundation who worked on rural infrastructure projects in Afghanistan in 2013, made his own novel quest for his holiday meal. He bought two scrawny turkeys in Baghlan province and drove them in the back of a pickup truck through the Salang Pass to Kabul, where he butchered them — a meal closer to an old-school Thanksgiving than steam trays and clamshell tents. “It convulsed and squawked, spraying a little hot blood on our fingers,” he said. “We plucked it, seasoned it with local wild cumin and coriander seeds, and smoked it on the grill.”

Andrew Milburn, then a Marine major from the Coalition and Special Warfare Center in Quantico, Virginia, who was assigned to advise the 5th Battalion of the Iraqi army in 2004, remembers his fellow Marines’ taking risks to assure he had a holiday meal. He was in Fallujah, spending the day in a mosque with Iraqi soldiers. Marines picked up a hot meal from the dining facility in Camp Fallujah and ran the gantlet to bring it to him.

“The Iraqi government had declared Fallujah secure by then, but the enemy hadn’t received this news, and nowhere in the city was yet safe,” he said. “We built a fire pit — the temperature outside was around freezing — and ate until we were almost comatose. Then reclining in the plastic chairs that furnished the mosque, we smoked cigars and listened to music. It was one of the best Thanksgivings I’ve had.”

Not every effort at mobile celebrations to troops under fire or in remote outposts succeeded. Chad Parment, a Marine captain who was in a cluster of tents near the Sinjar Mountains in Iraq in 2008, remembers a Thanksgiving meal “flown in special.”

“Turkey and stuffing with everything that goes with it,” he said. That was the plan. “The gunny opened the first box to find several cases of soda,” Parment said. “More than welcome after weeks of drinking lukewarm water.” All the other containers held nothing but soda, too. And that was the meal.

At war just as at home, holidays can also summon sorrows and funks. And in military units, a command’s push for a celebration could, for some, feel strained, even forced — a dreary office party with officers hovering among the enlisted and all but demanding high morale. Some veterans recall efforts at a tonic. Army 2nd Lt. Paul Wyatt Jr., who served in Iraq in 2009 with the 130th Engineer Brigade, remembers that an officer offered soldiers at one outpost a chance to contact their families.

“My commander instructed me to take out the satellite phone I carried and give each soldier 10 minutes to call home,” he said. “The phone was only to be used in case of emergencies if the tactical communications were damaged or disabled. Some laughed. Some cried. All were extremely thankful.”

The funks could still be particular, and deep. The presence of armed outsiders celebrating notions of peace or plenty in impoverished areas under occupation, often among populations beset with grief and seething with resentment and unrest, could make the moral and intellectual incongruities of Thanksgivings in the war on terror jagged and sharp. All sides hurt. Feasts and phone calls could soothe but not erase one side’s mistakes, confusions and pains.

And wars did not fully pause. The troops’ many battlefield foes did not observe their occupiers’ Thanksgivings. While American commanders often briefly slowed operational tempo on major holidays, including Thanksgiving, ground and air patrols continued, and troops on them faced attacks. Troops on bases were subjected to indirect-fire attacks, or answered calls for medevac or helped clear makeshift bombs — among the most dangerous missions of all.

Sgt. Michelle Estabrook (now Michelle Kuranishi) was assigned in 2005 with Master Sgt. Brett Angus to a two-Marine explosive ordnance disposal team that worked from Al Taqaddum Air Base in Anbar province, Iraq. They shared responsibility with another team for countering the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that militants hid along the Americans’ routes.

With their specialized equipment and stores of explosives, these teams typically lived apart from other troops. On Al Taqaddum, they befriended the base’s Mortuary Affairs unit, a group of Marines whose duties processing the dead also isolated them socially.

Angus was tall, lanky and good-natured, and enjoyed a good prank. He set up their shop computer so that every time Estabrook logged in, it played a song by the Black Eyed Peas that she could not stand.

Estabrook was grieving. Upon arriving in Iraq in September, she had been transferred to work with Angus from a team assigned to Ramadi. Not long after she left, two peers she had trained with for the deployment — Sgt. Daniel Tsue and Petty Officer 2nd Class Allan Espiritu — were killed in Ramadi.

As Thanksgiving approached, she was not feeling sentimental about the holiday. But another Marine in their small circle was. Together they scrounged enough boxed stuffing and canned pumpkin pie filling from care packages to assemble the semblance of a traditional dinner.

As they sat to eat, a call came to clear an IED. It was the other team’s turn. Estabrook and Angus finished eating with the Marines from Mortuary Affairs while their peers headed out. “We had a nice meal,” she said. “We counted ourselves lucky.”

The next morning, on Black Friday, another call came in. This time Estabrook and Angus left with their security team to a place where they had encountered many improvised bombs in the past.

A frustrating, complicated process ensued. The two Marines sent a remote-controlled robot to examine the suspected bomb, but the radio signal linking the team to the robot was getting interference from a drone overhead. As the robot put a claw on the bomb, the bomb exploded — destroying the robot outright.

Angus decided to walk forward to examine the ground and collect whatever remained of the robot.

A few minutes later, as Estabrook was packing their armored Humvee to depart, she heard a massive explosion — a blast too powerful to expect anyone near to have survived. “I knew pretty much instantly that he was dead,” she said.

A corpsman rushed toward the crater, found scattered remains and confirmed what everyone knew.

That night Estabrook numbly returned to the quarters she had occupied with Angus. It was empty without him. She tried to eat. She could not. Her friends from Mortuary Affairs called for her, and she visited them to give their officer a statement about her team leader’s death. Everyone was businesslike, working on the remains of a man they had shared Thanksgiving with the day before.

Estabrook survived her tour. She later married, left the Marines and earned a doctorate in psychology. She is now a clinical supervisor at a network of community clinics in Southern California.

Today a Thanksgiving dinner comes with meanings and habits it once did not. She does not like to discuss what happened in Iraq, assuming that stories of loss and death unsettle people. But during Thanksgiving meals in recent years, she thought about Tsue and Espiritu. And she quietly remembered how Angus spent his holiday at the base, enjoying a scavenged, make-do dinner that would be his last.

Thanksgiving, for her, has a resonance many survivors of war know. It is a distillation, beyond compare, of being aware that she is here for a meal at all. “The fact that I am alive,” she said, “I am so grateful.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company