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U.S. personnel mark holiday far from home

From the Middle East to Central Asia and beyond, U.S. service members passed a day meant to celebrate American bounty in far-flung deployments, longing for home while focusing on their missions.
U.S troops Celebrate Thanksgiving in Afghanistan
U.S service members load up on all the trimmings during a special Thanksgiving meal at Bagram military base in Afghanistan. The military said the meal — featuring roast beef, turkey, shrimp cocktail, mashed potatoes, fresh strawberries and pecan pie — was served to up to 4,000 troops.Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 like 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 Fallujah 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, who hails from Norfolk, Va., but lives with his wife and 10-year-old daughter on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.

A quick, quiet celebration
From their positions across Iraq’s dangerous and insurgent-dominated 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 planned to show 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.

‘The most important day of the year for us’
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, 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 in a lunchtime interview. “The sense that the sailors and the Marines have is that they are making progress.”

U.S. troops spread far and wide
In the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, there was no lack of thought for families back home among U.S. personnel at Manas Air Base.

“My wife and 5-month-old daughter, Emily, are waiting for me at home,” said Air Force Capt. Karl Recksick of Cheyenne, Wyo. “I have four months left to serve, and I’ll do my best to make my relatives proud.”

Supporting refueling and cargo missions for U.S. operations in nearby Afghanistan is the main purpose of the base, established in 2001.

Several servicemen wearing Santa Claus hats distributed handfuls of sweets to their fellows, and military machinery was decorated with little Christmas trees and red ribbons.

In South Korea, U.S. Air Force personnel at Osan Air Base chowed down on turkey and mashed potatoes in mess halls.

The two Koreas are technically still at war, and reminders of the uneasy armistice signed in 1953 abound at Osan, some 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.”

Trying to stay safe in a deadly place
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.

Kruse left Camp Fallujah on Wednesday for a multiple-day mission to hunt for roadside bombs and said he wouldn’t have time to do much Thanksgiving celebrating. A native of Huron, S.D., he will likely still be in the field when he turns 21 Saturday.

When asked what he planned to do for his birthday, Kruse didn’t hesitate: “Don’t get shot.”

Washington and other members of the 3rd Reconnaissance Military Transition Team were still at work near Thanksgiving’s dawn, after a search mission in Fallujah’s southern Nazaal district that began Wednesday night ran long.

As Americans back home prepared to offer their gratitude over heavily laden tables, Washington was focused on safety in the Iraqi desert.

“While you’re here you’re thankful for your team,” he said. “You’re thankful that all the guys with you are all right.”