Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving in Baghdad

Note: I meant to post these pictures yesterday, but had to take a no-notice trip up north to Bayji. I will post the details of that trip sometime in the next day or two as well.

This was my second Thanksgiving for which I was deployed overseas, the previous being in 1995, when I was a Second Lieutenant stationed just 30 miles from the DMX in South Korea. For those who have never served in the military, Thanksgiving is the equivalent of the Super Bowl for military dining facilities for which they pull out all the stops. As the menu below indicates, the soldiers here (and various State Department officials and contractors) had the option of turkey, lobster tails, carved ham, or freshly carved prime rib. There were mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, green beans, corn, salads, and about ten different kinds of pie.

[Note: Apparently you have to click on the blank space above to actually view the menu. Why? I don't know. 'Dem computers are tricky!]

Before the feast, however, I visited an Iraqi crafts bazaar held in the Green Beans Cafe (the former Palace ballroom converted into a coffee bar). I purchased about $200 worth of trinkets and paintings to be distributed as gifts to my family back home. (Sorry, Seth, they didn't have any hookahs available, and the daggers on sale started at $100). They also had a wide variety of hand-knit Iraqi rugs, but these started at $300 for anything more than a small sample.

For lunch, I went to the MNSTC-I (Multinational Support and Training Command-Iraq, the guys who are in charge of training Iraqi Security Forces) dining facility at Pheonix Base in a far corner of the International Zone. There, I dined with my old friend Major Chris Hickey (see my first post from Baghdad in March), who is redeploying next week. Although Pheonix Base's DFAC is not as elaborate as the Palace DFAC, it was a good meal, and my turkey breast was personally carved by Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey. (Again, for those not in the military, it is a tradition that the Commanders serve the lower ranks on Thanksgiving day). The meal was fine, although I restricted myself to traditional Thanksgiving fare . . . well, and an Iraqi-style shrimp kebab that was REALLY good.

After gorging to the point of immobility, I actually went back to the office for a few hours. Starting at 1600, I began carefully sipping tea, hoping to expand my stomach (an old wrestler's trick) so that I would have room for a big dinner. I then went with my co-workers to the Palace DFAC for a second turkey dinner. As the pictures below demonstrate, they put a lot of effort into decorating the mess hall with paper mache and ice sculptures, although the "pilgrims" and "Indians" quite frankly seriously creeped me out.

General Casey and his staff were still travelling across Iraq from one Forward Operating Base to another, so in order to give KBR's staff a break it was essentially self-service. This enabled me to give myself huge servings of dark meat, cornbread stuffing, and garlic mashed potatoes, topped by a small lake of turkey gravy. (The stuffing and potatoes were better at the Palace, while the turkey at Phoenix wasn’t as salty). Candles adorned each table, and a band played jazz next to a horrifically gaudy Thanksgiving diorama at the chow hall’s entrance. After cleaning my plate, I forced myself to have another slice of pecan pie (they’d run out of pumpkin), after having devoured two small slices of pie (pumpkin and pecan) with lunch.

In the end, it was a good meal, and I likely gained back about five of the ten pounds I've lost since coming to Iraq. But something felt as if it were missing. Corny as it sounds, I realized that as central as the feast and the football are to the holiday, what was lacking was my family. I really wish I'd been home with my family, to watch David enjoying his first Thanksgiving (with sufficiently processed turkey, of course). Hopefully, everybody here in Iraq will make it home safely to enjoy next year's Thanksgiving with their families.