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Turkey Amid the Sandbags: Troops Who Spent Thanksgiving Away at War

As you enjoy your meal with family at home, spare a thought for those in uniform

spinner image MATAKHAN, AFGHANISTAN - NOVEMBER 26:  SPC John Dever of Chicago, Illinois with Blackfoot Company Army's 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment has Thanksgiving dinner while standing watch in a guard tower November 26, 2009 in Matakhan, Afghanistan. The soldiers of Blackfoot were served pre-packaged turkey breasts, cranberries, potatoes, stuffing and pie.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A soldier from the U.S. Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment has Thanksgiving dinner in a guard tower in Matakhan, Afghanistan, in 2009.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

War does not respect the calendar or American traditions, and in 2005 I learned that Thanksgiving was no exception. I was a reporter embedded with 10 members of the Shadow sniper team, part of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, in a bombed-out observation post code-named Hotel and referred to jokingly as the Ramadi Inn.

spinner image people hold up a welcome home sign as someone from the military stands before an american flag. the words aarp veteran report appear above the flag
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This was no four-star abode, and the Iraq war was at its height. Shadow team had shot dead close to 200 enemy in under five months. The Americans had taken casualties too.

Staff Sgt. James Gilliland told me how he had been able to take out an Iraqi insurgent who had just killed his friend. Gilliland used an M24 rifle to hit him in the chest at a range of 1,250 meters. At the time, it was the longest confirmed kill in Iraq with a 7.62mm rifle.

Gilliland told me this as he and his men tucked into turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes while also training their sights on the streets below. These men missed their families, but they were intently focused on the job they had to do.

Every year, American troops are deployed overseas during Thanksgiving, often in harm’s way and sometimes in combat. Here are a few instances through history.

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R.M.S. Aurania, Atlantic Ocean, 1917

Soldiers from the 167th (Alabama) Regiment, part of the U.S. Army’s 42nd Division, celebrated Thanksgiving on board a troopship destined for Liverpool, England, in preparation for combat in France. The dinner included such delicacies as panais en creme (parsnips in cream) and gelle de groseilles (red currant jelly) and concluded with pumpkin pie.

For some on board, what was to be the only Thanksgiving during America’s part in World War I also proved to be their last. By the finish of the war, which ended on Nov. 11, 1918, the 167th had spent 110 days on the front lines without relief and had sustained heavy casualties.

Hürtgen Forest, Belgium, 1944

Infantrymen from the U.S. Army’s 26th Regiment had been in almost constant combat since the Normandy landings six months earlier. Most GIs didn’t even realize it was Thanksgiving until senior officers decided that everyone on the front line would receive a turkey dinner.

Cooks and bakers were sent forward to deliver each man a meal — a bag containing a turkey sandwich and stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce along with a piece of cake and a cigar. Several of those distributing the bags to those crouching in foxholes were killed or wounded in the process.

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Bu Prang, Vietnam, 1969

Daryl “Angie” Evangelho was a crewman in the U.S. Army’s 281st Assault Helicopter Company when his UH-1 “Huey” helicopter came under heavy fire. As bullets burst through the floor, the pilot called out, “Mayday, Mayday, we’re going down.” After a crash landing, Evangelho and the rest of the crew jumped out and found themselves surrounded.

There was an intense ground battle until another helicopter landed under fire to rescue them, an action that earned the pilot a Silver Star.

Evangelho later observed: “There is not a Thanksgiving Day that each of us still living does not think of that day that we were shot down, surrounded, and made it back to our post to eat our Thanksgiving dinner out of a can. We had everything to be thankful for!”

Marjah, Afghanistan, 2010

Justin Gaertner was a Marine on a clearance mission when an IED detonated, taking off both his legs. “I remember every second of that moment,” he recalled. “The smell. The looks. The sound. Everything that was going on, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”

But, he added, “it’s a day to remember how far you’ve come in life and that nothing can hold you back. ... I just think about everybody else that’s serving and the sacrifices that they’re making while I’m able to sit here and enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.”

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.



Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.