Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving in Baghdad

I hate to break in on all your happy, Kodak-ready holiday moments, but it's my duty to remind you there are, at this very moment, about 66,000 of men and women serving in the U.S. military who are having a pretty glum Thanksgiving in Afghanistan.  Yes, there will be impromptu football games on dusty fields in Kabul and dining facilities will pull out all the stops for remarkable feasts, but there will also be instances of overwhelming loneliness and depression...and perhaps a few deaths.  Please remember these men and women as you're tucking into your own Thanksgiving feast.

To remind myself of this very thing, I went back to the journal I kept during my year in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division.  I was nearing the end of my tour in the combat zone, and from the sounds of it, I was in a sour, angry mood.  Can you blame me?

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

November 23, 2005:  Several deaths today—the day before Thanksgiving, of all days.

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

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 Significant Activities reports.  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 into the house where the gunfire came from.  The platoon leader was wounded and the senior non-commission officer 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.  What he didn't know was that the truck would be identified as belonging to a terrorist organization.  Seeing the Anti-Iraqi Forces vehicle barreling toward them, the other soldiers opened fire, killing two of the NCOs.  Tragedy.  A goddamn fucking 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 deviousness of the enemy.

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, going to see a movie (it’s a family tradition) after the meal.  I started feeling really sorry for myself and got pelted by 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.

At the end of the morning briefing, the Chief of Staff came on and 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 1st Class C., always 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-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,” Sgt. 1st Class C. snapped back.  “I don’t need a special day for that.”

Work piled up in the cubicle and 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 reached a small breathing space around noon where 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 (by far the best thing I had all day), 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 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 thought of lives suddenly lost.  And we were all feeling gloomy about those needless Thanksgiving deaths until the loudspeakers overhead announced it was a controlled detonation by our own engineers.  Then we all went back to our chatter about football, deep-fried turkeys and how much we all hate it here.

* * *

If you'd like to help service members feel a little less lonely during their deployments, there are any number of organizations who can help you get cards, letters, and care packages overseas (trust me, I know firsthand how opening a box of beef jerky, Louis L'Amour paperbacks, and crayon-art by third graders can brighten even the worst of days).  I recommend two in particular: Any Soldier and Operation Paperback.

No comments:

Post a Comment