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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.
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.