FOB TORKHAM, Afghanistan — Sweet potato pie isn't nearly as sweet half a world away — but for the tens of thousands of troops still stationed in Afghanistan, it’ll do for now.
The Defense Department said it sent 70,000 pounds of turkey and all the fixings this year to the roughly 45,000 U.S. troops on duty in Afghanistan.
As the U.S. military escalates its withdrawal from Afghanistan, fewer such holiday meals will be necessary. But this year, the DOD-supplied Thanksgiving feast is a sober reminder that, for legions of troops, the job isn’t over.
The soldiers of Chaos Company, 10th Mountain Brigade, 4th Division had a special Thanksgiving meal on Forward Operating Base Torkham in eastern Afghanistan. Torkham is a small Afghan town fast by the Pakistani border. It is located in the Khyber Pass, a historical trade route through central Asia that was part of the famed Silk Road.
At the dining facility — or the DFAC as it is called here — the commanders served the food to the soldiers. One soldier said jokingly that “it’s the only time we get to tell the commanders what to do."
The soldiers had a lot to choose from. The menu was a typical Thanksgiving feast: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, gravy, beef rib eye, shrimp cocktail, green beans, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, pecan pie and sparkling red & white juice.
Thousands of miles from family and home, the troops were grateful for the offering.
'It’s the little things to make it feel like home'
For Iraq war veteran Staff Sgt. Wilfred Etienne from Jens, La., a good turkey dinner is all about flavor, so he brought his own seasoning to the company feast.
The food here is “delicious," he said, but “put a little Louisiana seasoning ... It’s the little things to make it feel like home.”
If Etienne was back at home, he would be cooking a big meal for his extended family and for his wife and 5-year-old daughter.
“Thanksgiving is one of my days. When I cook, I cook big, have a side of ribs, beans and rice with the turkey, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pie. ... Oh man, I feel like being home now," he said.
At the DFAC, he enjoyed ham, turkey with gravy, and corn on the cob.
"It's good," Etienne said. "It don’t compare to mine.”
'Quality time' with the guys
Specialist Steven Edwards from Murrieta, Calif., is a self-declared “beach bum." Back in California, his wife, Marie, is at his mother’s house; they will be cooking together, he said.
Instead of hanging out and telling stories with family, he was on guard duty on a watchtower right before his meal. He even tried the sweet potatoes. “I usually don’t like sweet potatoes, but I tried it and I liked it.”
The food at the DFAC “was delicious,” he said, “but nothing like my mom’s cooking; that’s No. 1. I love my mom’s mashed potatoes with gravy, some ham, a lot of biscuits — man, the biscuits are good with a lot of butter."
Missing home, Edwards, 24, still was grateful to be having Thanksgiving with his fellow soldiers.
"It's amazing. I love those guys, so it’s a good thing, spend some quality time.”
Turkey, stuffing and a promotion
Lt. Brian Campbell’s family has a Thanksgiving tradition back in Maple Grove, Minn.
“When we sit down, we go around the table and just take a few seconds to a minute saying what we are thankful for,” he said.
“That’s our main tradition. Then we spend the night playing board games late into the night.”
Campbell has taken on the role at home of making the turkey over recent years.
“The turkey and the stuffing, that’s my main thing," he said.
But Thursday was not an ordinary Thanksgiving for the 24-year-old; he was promoted to first lieutenant in an official ceremony, and he received the “Combat Action Badge” for his actions during a sustained and complex attack on FOB Torkham in September.
"Of course, I miss my family back in Minnesota. I wish I was sitting on the couch watching some football with them, but I am at home with my (other) family right now.”
'Everybody is going through the same thing'
Staff Sgt. Rodney Fields, from Riverdale, Ga., really enjoyed the food.
“The best I have seen. The set-up, the food was good, was excellent.”
But nothing compares to home cooking.
“My mom makes the sweet potato pie and my grandma makes the turkey and the dressing. It’s a different flavor at home," he said.
Back home at his grandma’s house, Fields' family would be having a big gathering. “Uncles, aunts, brothers, grandmother, pretty much the whole family.”
Thursday was not the first Thanksgiving in a combat zone for the 28-year-old; in 2005 he spent the holiday in Iraq. Spending Thanksgiving thousands of miles from home can offer a special reward, he said.
“We are all not with our families, so we bond more, it brings everybody together," he said. "Everybody is going through the same thing.”