The holidays in uniform


Thanksgiving 2003 was the first real holiday spent away from home on a tour of duty to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Our public affairs unit was on that Caribbean rock to support the prison operation. We were among 2,000 Army troops on the naval base. For the most part, the tour was less like a true military tour and more like a vacation a couple thousand miles from home and without anyone from back home. We had a lot of work to do, but we had off-time as well, and we found plenty of things to do.

But as Thanksgiving approached, there was an air of uneasiness.

Most of us spent the morning a bit subdued. A phone call just made the homesickness worse.

But our mood picked up a bit as the day progressed because we had a good night in store.

Four of the prettiest females in Joint Task Force Guantanamo had invited several of us to join them, and others, for Thanksgiving dinner.

They went all out. Huge spread of food — everything imaginable from the main course to dessert after dessert. Lots of drink. Each of them had dressed in their Sunday best. There were probably 15 of us gathered around the table when we stood to say a few words of thankfulness before the meal. For many of us, “friends” were as important as anything or anyone at that moment.

After enough turkey and dressing to feed, well, part of an Army, some of us retired to the back porch for a cigar. (None of us smoked cigars before Cuba; None of us smoke them now; Just makes sense to smoke a cigar in Cuba). We talked about sports and movies, the things any of us might have talked about had we been home on our own porch.

As night fell, some of us watched movies. Others went their own way. It seems someone had a board game of some sort. (If I’d won, I’d probably remember which one.)

Time to go. Big thanks to all.

The walk back to our hooch was by far more jovial than the walk over.

Enjoying that holiday in a near-normal fashion made Christmas and New Year’s Day and July 4 less depressing. Well, so did the goofy dinosaur creatures the KBR people would put out in the mess hall on holidays. What a dinosaur has to do with St. Patrick’s Day, I’m not sure.

Though military leaders try hard to keep troops occupied and well-fed on holidays, they can’t put war on hold and ship everyone home for 24 hours. I’m not sure what the other branches do, but the Army is fairly likely to have some sort of mandatory fun, maybe a 5k run or some sort of lunch thing. It’s the thought that counts, I guess.

On Thanksgiving, tens of thousands of our fellow Americans were serving in war zones and other inhospitable places around the world. Afghanistan isn’t a fun place on any day, let alone turkey day. Neither is Kuwait. Or South Korea. There were lots of phone calls back to the states Thursday, more than a few tears shed. But the folks wearing the uniform did their best to put on a brave face and carry on. They always do.

But being away from home on holidays isn’t much fun, especially in a military uniform.

While we’re enjoying the holidays this year with family and friends, eating some of our favorite foods and watching football, let’s remember the service members who won’t have that opportunity. While we’re at it, let’s add a prayer for their quick and safe return.

• • •

Rick Fahr is an independent journalist in Arkansas who most recently was editor and publisher of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. His e-mail is rickfahr@yahoo.com.