NPR logo Essay: Happy Holidays From The Combat Zone

Essay: Happy Holidays From The Combat Zone

Capt. Nate Rawlings (left) and his friends on Thanksgiving Day in southern Baghdad. The group enjoyed precooked turkey and cranberry sauce out of a can the size of a kettle drum. Justin Twombly hide caption

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Justin Twombly

Capt. Nate Rawlings (left) and his friends on Thanksgiving Day in southern Baghdad. The group enjoyed precooked turkey and cranberry sauce out of a can the size of a kettle drum.

Justin Twombly

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The deployed service member has few guaranteed certainties, except that he will miss every important event during a calendar year.

He will miss his anniversary. He will miss his children's birthdays and their first days of school. He will miss weddings, funerals and baptisms. He will miss the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Masters and the World Series. And he will miss every holiday normally spent with his family.

In my mother's most recent e-mail, she pointed out that this deployment will mark the first where I have missed Thanksgiving and Christmas in succession. In the past, I have missed one of each: I deployed to Iraq two weeks after Thanksgiving in 2005 and returned a few days before Christmas in late 2006. In this respect, I have been lucky. By the end of this combat tour, Staff Sgt. Kris Tate will have been in Iraq for three Thanksgivings and three Christmases in the past four years; his experience is typical among mid-level non-commissioned officers in combat units.

This year, between duties and missions, some of my friends fondly shared their favorite Thanksgiving traditions. There is Matt Moosey, the young Jewish captain who in 2006 lived on — and fought from — his tank for three week stretches at a time. This year, he said he found himself missing not only the traditional feast that his family members enjoy, but the smoked trout and "Tofurkey" they often prepare for meat-averse friends.

There is Tim "Muffin" English, the towering naval aviator, who has flown combat missions over Afghanistan and rescue missions during Hurricane Katrina. Muffin estimated that during Thanksgivings back home, he spent at least 18 hours eating, drinking and watching football on his favorite couch. These numbers are just slightly higher than the average American who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, spends 1.2 hours eating and drinking and 3.7 hours watching television.

The past couple years, however, Muffin's holidays have hardly been average. Last year, he spent Thanksgiving on an aircraft carrier in a far-flung section of sea. Before he could ask about turkey or football, his flight over Afghanistan in a E-2 Hawkeye ended in a crash landing onto a moving ship.

This year, Muffin spent the day with Army friends on a small base in southern Baghdad. It was the second Thanksgiving of the three during his marriage that he wasn't able to enjoy his wife's cooking or his favorite beer. He missed seeing his in-laws, and there was no couch. There was a television, however, and there was football. There were also friends — thrown together in a powerful fellowship fashioned across a year of operations.

Together, Muffin and Moosey and dozens of others enjoyed a mass-produced turkey dinner on plastic plates with plastic forks on plastic cafeteria trays. They sat around long tables, in a building half the length of a football field. As they chewed, they knew that in numerous locations, across Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops were doing the same under a variety of conditions.

While families back home followed long-held traditions, infantryman, tanker, cavalry scout and engineer improvised, turning plywood and humvee hoods into dining tables. The taste of the perfectly round, pre-cooked turkey slices and cranberry sauce extracted from a two gallon can lingered on his breath as he left his small outpost and walked the streets of Baghdad and Mosul or the mountains of Kunar and Ghazni. His journey took him no more than five or six miles and, if he was lucky, occupied no more than six to 18 hours.

Rather than consume most of his day, the Thanksgiving dinner was the brief interruption in a continuous series of missions and patrols, the daily business that does not cease for an American holiday.

In the late afternoon, he received word that the Iraqi parliament had signed the Status of Forces Agreement, composing the schedule for the final removal of troops from this country. According to the SOFA's timeline, the troop drawdown will be slow, but the approval is proof that this constant war will, in fact, end.

For the soldier in the field, the first mission following a Thanksgiving dinner spent with 20 to 40 unlikely, yet irreplaceable, friends was one less he will have to execute before he can dream about his return home. The first mission following Thanksgiving dinner was also the first mission in the final chapter of a war that has consumed much of his young life.

He now has high hopes that next Thanksgiving will be different. The site of a real table and beer will be as welcome as irregularly shaped turkey slices cut on Thanksgiving Day and cranberry sauce from a can smaller than a kettle drum. He will play with the children who last year went trick or treating without him and whose holiday plays he has not seen. And when he is done eating as much as he pleases, his only destination is a favorite couch to sleep off the tryptophan.

When he is ready, he will leave his relatives' house for a mission he will not despise, that of joining 41 million brave souls for the five-plus mile journey home.