U.S. troops give thanks in Iraq
Troops from the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division (Task Force Ironhorse) line up for turkey Thursday in Tikrit, Iraq.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) -- Despite turkey and stuffing on the menu, and American football on the satellite TV schedule, Thursday was far from an ordinary Thanksgiving Day for tens of thousands of U.S. troops serving in Iraq.
Soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division gathered in a prefabricated dining hall in eastern Baghdad to munch on traditional fare and reflect on the annual holiday.
Rather than with bitterness at being stuck so far from home for the celebration, it was with a strong degree of introspection and soul-searching that most chewed over their sweet potatoes, ham, corn and cranberry sauce.
"It's actually pretty interesting to have Thanksgiving here in Baghdad -- I mean it's not every day that you can say that," said Private Jeffrey Riebe, 20, from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
"I'm certainly thankful that we still have everyone in our unit, which isn't the case for many others. At the same time, I'm sorry I'm not with my family."
The U.S. military will spend about $4.5 million this year providing troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan with a special meal on Thanksgiving.
By far the biggest deployment overseas is in Iraq, where more than 130,000 troops face daily engagement with Iraqi insurgents as they try to bring security to the country.
The holiday dates back to 1621 when early settlers celebrated a successful harvest giving them enough food to last the winter. They shared the feast with neighboring Native Americans.
More than 430 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein was launched in March and it was the memory of those servicemen and women that was most on people's minds Thursday.
"A lot more people went to church last night and there's a different feeling among the soldiers today," said Captain Jean-Pierre Brown, a fire support officer whose unit was eating Thanksgiving lunch under Iraq's national Martyrs Monument.
"We're going to make it so that soldiers can forget about life in Baghdad and ensure that they know they have something to be thankful for -- mostly for being alive," he said.
Commanders have encouraged soldiers to rest as much as possible during the day, to watch movies, play sports, send e-mail to friends and loved ones and contemplate what it means to be serving the country abroad.
At their base inside Iraq's former Olympic sports complex, members of the 1st Brigade's battalion support group played horseshoes and chatted before lunch -- M16s slung over their shoulders -- then toasted with nonalcoholic sparkling juice.
"It's probably strange to say, but I'm enjoying myself," said private Claudia Kannel, 24, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "I thought I was going to be really depressed waking up this morning, but actually I'm just glad to be alive."
Kannel works as a medic, going out with patrols at night in an ambulance and giving emergency treatment to any soldiers shot or hit in frequent roadside explosions detonated by insurgents. A close friend was recently killed in a blast.
"At home, Thanksgiving is all about football, here it's about being alive," she said. "I've thought a lot more about the meaning of Thanksgiving since being here."
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