The U.S. military has deployed all over the world for decades, and missing Thanksgiving at home with family is common. Whether aboard an aircraft carrier or at an observation post in middle-of-nowhere, Afghanistan, service members have figured out ways to celebrate the holidays in some of the most austere environments on earth.
Sometimes, commanders fly out to visit forward-deployed troops to scoop mashed potatoes out of mermites and onto the plates of tired Marines. Some soldiers celebrate Thanksgiving with nothing more than a beat-up USPS box packed full of holiday goodies Mom sent — just scrape away the mold. Regardless of how you celebrate in the field or away from home, one thing is certain: they’ll make for some of the best memories you’ll have in uniform.
Matson served as a U.S. Navy SEAL from 2005 to 2015 on active duty and then did another three years in the Reserve, deploying five times to all sorts of austere locations around the world.
For Matson, his fondest Thanksgiving deployment memory takes him back to Basra, Iraq, in 2009. The base defense systems were constantly countering indirect fire (IDF) during that deployment to the point that Matson and his fellow SEALs became desensitized to the danger of the incoming ordinance.
“Our tradition was whenever the rounds would start popping off, we would run out to the bunkers, stand on top, and watch what was going on,” Matson said. “The CIWS would start firing, you know, firing off and going crazy. It’s like watching repetitive firework shows with all the cannon firing going off.”
But on Thanksgiving day, they were eating a traditional Thanksgiving meal at the chow hall when the alarms sounded, and the CIWS started firing. True to their tradition, Matson and some of his buddies ran out to the bunkers to watch the action.
Another service member who seemed to be of higher rank started barking at Matson and his guys to get low.
They chuckled, and Matson shouted that laying down makes you a bigger target. He likened it to the movie Battleship and how the big ships always get hit first because the little ships make small targets.
“Half the mess hall area just erupted in laughter as we’re running out of there,” Matson said. “Get to the bunkers, hopped on top of the bunkers, and watched this whole thing go down.”
After the fireworks died down, they went right back to their Thanksgiving meal. Later that night, an announcement notified everyone on the base that the CWIS would be test firing because only three of the 21 IDF rounds were intercepted.
Does a Thanksgiving meal taste any better after watching an attack from on top of a bunker? “It always does,” Matson said.
Denman deployed 15 times throughout the Middle East as a Ranger, working in both 1st and 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. He didn’t spend too many Thanksgiving seasons on deployment because they were typically overseas for “fighting season,” during the summer months.
But, he recalls one interesting Thanksgiving. During a deployment to Iraq in 2006, Denman and his Rangers worked in a large area between Baiji and Samarra, and it was a particularly busy trip.
“It was a 90-day deployment, and we did 105 raids in 90 days,” Denman said. “That was with 20 weather days — we were crushing it.”
A mission came up on Thanksgiving day with the target in Tikrit. Denman remembers being happy because they were based out of Tikrit.
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“If you had to go to Samarra or Baiji, it was almost an hour’s drive one way and would take all night,” Denman said. “So we were like, ‘fuck yeah.’ It’s Thanksgiving, we’ll go hit this shit and come back and chill or whatever. It’ll be a light night.”
Murphy’s law never takes a break for the holidays, though the raid went smoothly, and they got their guy. While conducting sensitive site exploitation (SSE), they discovered a hidden tunnel that led to a large water cistern filled with semi-automatic rifles, machine guns, and explosives.
“We didn’t have enough demo with the platoon to blow it all in place. It was more than we could carry, and honestly, it was kind of a big EOD problem,” Denman said. “We didn’t want to fuck with it, it could have been booby-trapped or whatever.”
So they called on the conventional quick reaction force so they could take over and have their EOD technicians take care of the weapon and explosive cache. Denman and his platoon waited over two hours before the conventional forces arrived to take over.
By the time Denman and his platoon returned to their base, it was morning, and the DFAC wasn’t serving any leftover turkey or mashed potatoes.
U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army
Powers has had an interesting military career, first serving in the U.S. Marine Corps as a truck driver, then later in the U.S. Army as a Black Hawk crew chief, and now in the Army Reserve as a Black Hawk pilot. He said he’s always enjoyed a fairly typical Thanksgiving meal in training or deployment.
During a deployment to Al-Anbar, Iraq, in 2006, Powers and his fellow Marines were tasked with a mission outside the wire that took all day. Good ol’ Meals, Ready to Eat, better known as the MRE, was the Marine’s Thanksgiving meal, except it was served for breakfast, lunch, and supper.
But they hustled back just in time to make midnight rations, better known as Midrats, and that, thankfully, was a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
“Anytime you’re eating straight at the chow hall in a field environment, it’s kind of just the same old sterile food every single time,” Powers said. “To have a Thanksgiving meal was just something to really look forward to. I think I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always been able to have that special meal.”
On a more recent deployment to Saudi Arabia in 2019, Powers said he had the worst field conditions he was ever subjected to because they stayed in tents across from the Prince Sultan Air Base. But misery creates strong bonds, and although 8-man tents are not peak luxury, the chow hall came through when it counted most.
“We ended up bonding really well while we were down there, and the Thanksgiving was surprisingly amazing,” Powers said. “The food was so bad, was notoriously bad at that chow hall. They somehow pulled off an amazing Thanksgiving meal. We can tell they put a lot of care and effort into that meal.”
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