BAGRAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - At a canteen inside a U.S. Army Forward Operating Base, hundreds of soldiers stand patiently in line for a traditional Thanksgiving meal to be eaten at tables decorated with paper turkeys.
They tucked in under the stare of statues of 17th century pilgrims, which kneel beside a carefully arranged banquet of fruit, sweet potato pie, sponge cake, crab and tubs of ice cream.
Outside, soldiers at a combat outpost survey the harsh landscape in pursuit of Taliban insurgents.
“This is the fifth time I’ve been away from home for Thanksgiving,” Scott Whalley, a 30-year-old staff sergeant from Utah said.
Between the arid mountains that dominate Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, sits Forward Operating Base (FOB) Organ-e, home to 1,300 military personnel, 250 of whom spent Thanksgiving at outposts, monitoring insurgent activity.
“The effect of what they’ve done for Thanksgiving, making sure they’ve provided everything you could want, is positive. It’s nice to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal,” said Sergeant Tom Price, also from Utah, who works with Whalley and is married with four children.
At FOB Gardez, district platoon leader Xavier Burrell, 29, helped serve turkey, roast beef, greens and stuffing alongside Undersecretary of State for the U.S. army Nelson Ford and Brigadier General Mark Milley, who were making a flying Thanksgiving visit to U.S. bases.
“It’s definitely not home but it still feels home. You’re with all the family you’ve been with for the past eight months,” said Burrell, who received a combat badge and a promotion to First Lieutenant on Thursday.
“It felt good to be recognized with the rest of the soldiers. A lot of stuff’s always happening out on the road all the time ... we’re constantly running around the country side of Afghanistan.”
Back at Bagram airbase, the U.S.-led coalition forces headquarters in Afghanistan, Philip Tactay, a 26-year-old Californian, whose job involves defusing Improvised Exploding Devices, awaits a flight back home for a vacation.
He has spent four of the last five Thanksgivings away from his hometown of Newport Beach.
“My whole outlook on the holiday is screwed-up already, Christmas and Thanksgiving is just like any other day for me ... I grew with a military family so I was used to the idea,” Tactay said.
For Nelson Ford, who took his job as undersecretary of state in August, the visit had a personal resonance.
“I have a son who is deployed currently and he’s in Special Forces. As a parent you just hold your breath when your child is deployed. But it’s the work he wants to do and I support him in the work he wants to do.”
For Tactay, who has been in the army for eight years and served in Iraq, it could be time to call an end to life in Bagram and enlist in a future of civilian Thanksgivings.
“My dad did 32 years in the navy ... I figured if I ever want to settle down with a family I need to either find someone who is comfortable with this, or get a different job.”
Editing by Alison Williams