Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Death, Loneliness, and Turkey: Thanksgiving in Iraq

Just to keep things in perspective, every so often I like to re-visit the journal I kept during my deployment to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The words I wrote in 2005 are sometimes silly, sometimes smart, and sometimes bullheaded--but they're always stark reminders of how far removed I am from the Sergeant First Class David Abrams of those days.  It's like he's on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon waving his arms to the present-day me standing on the North Rim--not unlike the Iraq War itself which is rapidly receding from our national memory.

That's why it's good for me to take a moment on this Thanksgiving Eve and remember what it was like for me and thousands of fellow servicemembers on this day eight years ago....and then remind myself that this is what it's like for thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in 2013 who will be eating alone tomorrow, the taste of chow-hall turkey on their tongues making it hard to swallow down their homesickness.

Soldiers at Camp Taqqadum in Habbaniyah Iraq, are served Thanksgiving dinner.
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Gary Silverman)
November 23, 2005:  Several deaths today—the day before Thanksgiving, of all days.

First one was an apparent suicide—a soldier found in his hootch.  Single gunshot wound to the head.

Then, in the afternoon, came a report that started off as small-arms fire, then changed to an Improvised Explosive Device, then was quickly deleted from the Sig Acts report.  The battle captain came to me personally and said, “Don’t do anything with a press release on it just yet.  Hold off for a little while.  Looks like it might be a blue-on-blue incident.”  Which is milspeak for “friendly fire.”

A platoon on patrol had split into two elements—one mounted, one dismounted.  The guys on foot came under fire from a house and the platoon leader stormed inside where he believed the gunfire was coming from.   The platoon leader was wounded and the senior NCO assumed control of the situation.  When he couldn’t establish radio contact with the rest of his platoon in the mounted element, he decided to use a blue civilian truck to evacuate the wounded lieutenant back to the mounted element.  He loaded everyone into the truck and started driving back to the rest of his platoon.  Seeing what they thought was an Anti-Iraqi Forces vehicle barreling toward them, the other soldiers opened fire, killing two of the NCOs.  Tragedy.  A goddamn tragedy of mistakes.

* * *

Also received a report today of a unit which had discovered a weapons cache which included some Beanie Babies with hand grenades stuffed inside them.  This is the latest evil of the enemy.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr. talks with Task Force Baghdad soldiers
during the Thanksgiving meal at the Rock of the Marne Dining Facility.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Andrew Miller)
November 24, 2005:  Thanksgiving.

Perhaps the most melancholy day I’ve spent here so far.  All I could think about all day long was what Jean and the kids were doing back in Georgia: cooking the turkey, lazing around in their pajamas until mid-afternoon, and then going to see a movie (a family tradition) after the meal.  I started feeling really sorry for myself and was pelted with waves of loneliness and homesickness.

My feelings were compounded by the deaths from the day before as I thought about how someone’s Thanksgiving was suddenly tuned into a personal hell when the casualty assistance officers showed up on their doorstep.  Maybe the house was still filled with the smell of just-baked pumpkin pies, now cooling on the counter.  Maybe somebody fainted in the doorway as the officer started delivering his speech, “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret...”  Maybe that officer, so beautiful in his crisp dress uniform, burned under the heat of a wife’s scream, maybe he felt like the grim reaper standing there in the cooling Georgia evening.

Here at Task Force Baghdad headquarters, at the end of the morning briefing, the Chief of Staff came on and, instead of saying “Nothing further.  Rock of the Marne!,” told us: “Okay, everybody have a reasonably good day.  On a day that is normally spent with family and in leisure, you find yourself here in the Baghdad battlespace.  We still have a mission to complete and I commend you all for the sacrifices you are making.”

Hardly words of comfort for those of us who were already aching and pining, but I’ll accept the sentiment, no matter how forced it sounded.

Sergeant C____, routinely a bitter person, was even more jaded today.  When someone wished him a Happy Thanksgiving, he said, “What do I have to be thankful for?  I’m getting extra pay for being 3,000 miles away from my wife.  Yee-friggin-haw.”

Diana, the Iraqi interpreter who works in the Information Operations cell, said, “Well, be thankful you’re still alive.”

“I’m thankful for that every day,” C____ shot back.  “I don’t need a special day for that.”

Mission overwhelmed me today, which was a good thing, I suppose.  I was soon so busy with press releases and media calls (“So, what’s it like spending Thanksgiving 3,000 miles away from your family?” one reporter asked me; “Are you guys doing anything different today?” another asked), that I didn’t have time to think of basting turkeys, bringing Jean coffee in bed, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV, or sleeping off the turkey coma in the early afternoon.

I finally reaching a small breathing space around noon when I could break away and go to the dining facility for lunch.  I stood in line for nearly 25 minutes before I got in the front door (as opposed to just walking right in on any other given day).  The food was good, but not spectacular.  I loaded my plate with fresh-carved turkey, shrimp cocktail, ham (dried like a piece of pink shoe leather), stuffing, sweet potatoes, gravy, corn on the cob and pumpkin pie.  I sat down at a table by myself.  When you’re feeling lonely, you just want to be left alone.  Within a few minutes, Iraqi contract interpreters had joined me, surrounding me on all sides.  So, my Thanksgiving meal was spent with the stereophonic babble of Arabic.

I returned to the office and got right back to work.  We were all feeling sated from the meal, burping up sweet potatoes, when an air-sucking boom rattled the building.  We hushed, stopped what we were doing.  Someone said, “Oh my.”  We all thought of lives suddenly lost.  And we were all feeling gloomy about those needless Thanksgiving deaths until someone came on the overhead speaker and announced it was a controlled detonation by our own Army engineers.  Then we all went back to our chatter about football, deep-fried turkeys and how much we all hate it here.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing. It surely does make the day here seem like a blessing.

  2. Very interesting blog, enjoyed the time spent on reading you.



  3. My daughter Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War shared this piece with me. Thanks for helping me reflect a little more deeply on what I have to be thankful for. -Bill