For U.S. troops around the world, Thanksgiving will be a time for food, fun, and a little slice of home.
“No matter where in the world they are, they're getting Thanksgiving with all the trimmings,” said Keith Ford, chief of food service with the Defense Logistics Agency in Philadelphia.
The military works hard at making the holiday enjoyable for the troops, said spokespeople for all the branches. That includes providing the big Thanksgiving feast and entertainment. And especially for the nearly 260,000 men and women stationed abroad, Thanksgiving takes on extra meaning.
The holiday brings a “feeling of fellowship and camaraderie,” said Maj. Erik Gunhus of Task Force Falcon with the peace-keeping force in Kosovo. “The best thing is sharing fellowship with other people in the same situation as you,” he said. “It makes for a unique and special day.”
As a highlight for the American troops in Kosovo, President Bill Clinton celebrated an early Thanksgiving meal on a visit Tuesday to troops near Urosevac. Among those with him were his daughter, Chelsea; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; and the NATO Commander, Gen. Wesley Clark.
For the troops, good food is the No. 1 morale booster and a way to give them a sense of home, said Dave Dillon, project officer in recipe development at the Research Development Center at Natick, Mass. For the traditional Thanksgiving feast, the military has U.S. distributors around the world who send the turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie and other holiday trimmings to troops.
“An extra effort is put out for these sorts of holidays,” said Dillon, a retired master chief who was a Navy cook for nearly 30 years. “And it's hard, especially when you're serving 18 and 19-year-old kids who may never have been away from home before.”
For example, Navy cooks will serve up a feast for the approximately 6,000 sailors on the USS John F. Kennedy now in the Persian Gulf. Their Thanksgiving order included 2,080 pounds of turkey, 900 pounds of roast beef, 650 pounds of mashed potatoes, 756 pounds of stuffing, and 130 pounds of cranberry sauce, according to a report from the Naval Supply Systems Command.
To cook the food, kitchen staffs work in three or four areas on a ship, Dillon said. The job starts at 4 a.m. and lasts all day.
For the Army, cooks and officers “roll out the red carpet” for enlisted men and women, said spokesperson Maj. Thomas Collins, who has spent several Thanksgivings abroad. In a tradition, Army officers serve the food on Thanksgiving. The lowest ranks are served first and the upper ranks are served last. The troops seem to appreciate the gesture, Collins said.
“Soldiers come through the lines with big smiles on their faces,” he said, “seeing full colonels or senior ranking officers serving food to the lower ranks.”
In addition to the food, the USO and Armed Forces Entertainment are sending several entertainers on Thanksgiving tours.
In “Operation Starlift,” actress Salma Hayek, Danica McKellar of Wonder Years fame, and comedian Garrett Morris will travel to Skopje, Macedonia and Kosovo to meet and greet the troops, said USO spokesman Scott Gruber. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts are touring the Middle East, including Israel and Turkey. Other musicians and entertainers also will visit troops in the Balkans, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean.
For many in the military, the extra effort eases some of the loneliness of being far from family and friends on the holiday. “The worst possible thing,” said Gunhus of Task Force Falcon in Kosovo, “might be the fact that the pumpkin pie won't taste as good as mom's.”