Thursday, November 26, 2009

Soldiers in Afghanistan enjoy turkeys they raised

BARAKI-BARAK, Afghanistan (AP) - As daylight faded and the winter cold set in, soldiers huddled inside a crude wooden hut to tuck into Thanksgiving turkeys the unit itself had fattened and to give thanks for having survived a year of combat in Afghanistan.

"They become your family and being able to eat together like this, to break bread together is a highlight," said 1st Sgt. Gonzalo Lassally of soldiers from Able Troop, 3-71 Cavalry Squadron sitting down to the traditional turkey plus ham basted in brown sugar and honey, five varieties of pies and nonalcoholic beer. A stack of local flatbread added an Afghan touch.

A much-scaled down version of the feast was helicoptered to a handful of soldiers in an observation post perched on a 6,900-foot (2,100-meter) spur.

"We're thankful for all still being here. We've been lucky, on the lower spectrum when it comes to casualties," said Lassally, a father of three from Deltona, Florida, who has spent four Thanksgivings, three Christmases and "quite a few birthdays" away from home.

The American holiday began with a 25-man patrol and ended with another unit heading out for night surveillance of several villages in this remote district of strategic Logar province, located just south of Kabul.

"Just another day, another mission," several soldiers said as the first patrol prepared for a 6-mile (10-kilometer) slog to aid village schools without windows, desks and other basic necessities.

Others let sentiment seep through their matter-of-fact, stoic shells.

"We're with our family just like we would be at Thanksgiving back home," said Staff Sgt. Ben McKinnon, of New Haven, Connecticut, nodding toward the soldiers around him that have daily shared hardship, suffering and some elation over the past year.

Commander Capt. Paul Shepard said his unit, part of the 10th Mountain Division, had lost two soldiers in action and seen a number wounded, but none in Alpha Troop have died.

"Knock on wood we've had some really good luck in our district. We've had a relatively good welcome from the locals and the severity of contact with the insurgents has not been great," Shepard, of Black River, New York, said. "And we have tried to give out as much as we can."

Troops have blitzed the area with humanitarian aid under an innovative "extreme makeover" concept that has had Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and civilian officials, helicoptering in to see how the model could be applied elsewhere in the country.

As the humanitarian mission was under way, three cooks on the Joint Combat Operations Post scurried to prepare the meal. Putting a turkey on a soldier's Thanksgiving table isn't always easy in Afghanistan.

To enjoy the fresh thing, soldiers a month ago bought six turkeys at $20 apiece from local farmers, built a special pen under one of the guard towers, and fed them cornbread, crackers and even chicken. The unit's mechanics converted a 55-gallon drum (208-liter) into a smoker and Staff Sgt. Charles Hough, of Dexter, New York, who is otherwise charged with the unit's mortars, volunteered to supervise deep frying three of the celebratory birds.

Spc. Seth Breesawitz, of Springfield, Missouri, who supervises two other army cooks on the outpost, said that to feed some 150 soldiers the local turkeys were supplemented with four pre-baked and seasoned ones airlifted from the United States and then trucked to Baraki-Barak.

"It makes me feel good to give them a piece of home," said Breesawitz as cooks finished slaughtering the turkeys Wednesday evening, preparing to pluck their feathers with the help of four, young and enthusiastic Afghan boys who perform odd jobs around a base where the troops have lived for almost a year.

Still, it's hardly a place most would want to call home.

Around the outpost lie barren fields and stark, fortress-like village compounds fashioned from mud brick. The landscape exudes a melancholy air: Autumn's last leaves cling to apple trees, and the naked branches of willows are etched into a cold sky. In the distance, mountain peaks soar to 14,000 feet (4,200 meters), capped by early winter snows.

The soldiers live in tents or crude wooden huts, ringed by a 12-foot (3.6-meter) earthen defensive wall topped by barbed wire. The "dining hall" is a square wooden structure with bare walls but for paper cutouts of two turkey heads and a sprinkling of maple leaves. The kitchen, a tiny tent on a trailer, is not for a chef who is feint of heart.

"I think the army goes out of its way to make the holiday as good as possible," Shepard said. "I would like to think that none of the soldiers will miss two Thanksgivings or Christmases in a row, but unfortunately that may happen in these days of frequent overseas deployments." Most soldiers here won't be getting back to their home base of Fort Drum, New York, until after Christmas.



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