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Thursday, November 25

Bittersweet Thanksgiving for troops in Iraq

By Gordon Trowbridge | Army Times

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq - Air Force Staff Sgt. Mark Gilley spent Thanksgiving Day getting used to his new surroundings.

The tent. The dust. The constant hum of generators and the throb of helicopters moving in and out of this sparse Army post near Tikrit.

The combat weatherman has deployed to tough locations before, but arriving on Thanksgiving morning in the heart of the dangerous Sunni Triangle - where he and a small Air Force team will provide weather forecasts for Army helicopter crews - made it a different sort of holiday.

``Yesterday was my dad's 71st birthday,'' said Gilley, a Tennessee Air National Guardsman from Nashville. ``Today's Thanksgiving, and I'm missing them both.

``I've deployed before, to Saudi Arabia, but this one is different. With this one, the worry level with my parents is much higher.''

For U.S. service members across Iraq, Thursday was a day for remembering family and friends far away - and for trying to be festive despite the odd combination of monotony and danger that is daily life for thousands of troops. For many, the only thing Thanksgiving-like about the day was the turkey dinner and cool temperatures.

Base dining facilities cranked out massive quantities of turkey, ham, steak and prime rib, mashed potatoes and stuffing, green beans and pumpkin pie. At Kirkuk Regional Air Base in Northern Iraq, contract employees serving Thanksgiving lunch wore fake Indian headdresses to commemorate American Indians at the first Thanksgiving. At Speicher's chow hall, plastic and paper Thanksgiving decorations hung from the ceiling.

``It's nice that they decorated, but it would almost make it easier if they didn't,'' said Army Sgt. Sara Dvorak 23, of Pierre, S.D.

Dvorak, a member of the Nebraska National Guard's 267th Ordnance Co., said Thursday was the biggest bout of homesickness she's had in her nearly 10 months in Iraq.

``But you're here with people that you've become so close to that it's like they're family,'' Dvorak said.

Specialist Dennis Frey, 21, of Genoa, Neb., called his family just before sitting down to eat.

``They try to sound upbeat, not let you know how much they miss you because they know that only makes it harder on you,'' said Frey, also of the 267th Ordnance Co.

At Kirkuk, Air Force Capt. John Chartkoff was remembering Thanksgiving 2003, eating a great meal and sitting down to watch football as snow fell outside his sister's Vermont home.

``This doesn't feel like Thanksgiving,'' he said. ``It's almost like another day. If there hadn't been turkey, it's almost like I wouldn't even know.''

Others said there's always reason to give thanks, even on the first day of your deployment to Iraq.

``It could be worse,'' said Air Force Master Sgt. Gloria Gray, another Tennessee guard weather expert who arrived Thursday at Speicher. ``I could have arrived in Fallujah on Thanksgiving Day."