At one Afghan base, U.S. troops have extra reason to be thankful

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 25, 2010 

WORLD NEWS USAFGHAN-THANKSGIVING MCT

U.S. Navy Lt. Cdr. Ed Stallworth helps carve as a Thanksgiving meal is served to troops stationed at Forward Operating Base Wright in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan on Thursday, November 25, 2010. (Warren P. Strobel/MCT)

WARREN P. STROBEL — MCT

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WRIGHT, Afghanistan — The insurgent took what he must have thought was a lucky shot. His rocket-propelled grenade smashed into a bladder full of 63,000 gallons of diesel fuel, sending a fireball 1,000 feet skyward, destroying 10 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and raining metal over the base.

At times knifing open bags to douse the fire with sand, troops on this base in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province labored in a 6-inch-deep river of slowly igniting fuel to prevent broader damage. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt.

"There was a higher being watching out for us that day," said Army 1st Lt. Anthony Goble, who watched as ammunition in the MRAPs cooked off and a roughly 300-pound vehicle door went flying overhead 50 yards away.

The fact that there were no casualties in the early morning incident Nov. 15 was an extra reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving, despite being in a war zone thousands of miles away from friends, family and football.

Members of the U.S. Navy-led Provincial Reconstruction Team based here have as their primary mission strengthening the fragile local government, rather than combat. But parts of Kunar are among the most dangerous in Afghanistan. The surrounding mountains and close-by border with Pakistan provide refuge for a lethal melange of insurgent groups.

The troops here took a few hours between duties Thursday to celebrate the holiday with heaping platefuls of food. They occasionally permitted themselves to voice thoughts of home.

"Home is home for a reason — it's special. ... You miss the memories, because they're so tough to come by," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ed Stallworth, the unit's executive officer, as he carved from a gigantic piece of beef for a line of junior officers, enlisted personnel and civilians.

Stallworth said that if he were at home in Portland, Ore., "I'd be actually trying to start the eggnog season off," as well as taking his daughter to practice basketball, which he coaches.

Also on the menu were the traditional turkey, stuffing, and mashed and sweet potatoes, as well as macaroni and cheese and four kinds of pie.

After most of his soldiers had eaten, Navy Cmdr. William Goss, the base commander, welcomed a delegation of about a dozen local Afghan dignitaries for an early afternoon Thanksgiving dinner. Speaking in English through a translator, and using a sprinkling of the Pashto language, he explained the origins of the American holiday to the visitors, and likened it to the just-passed Islamic festival of Eid al Adha.

"We're very excited you're able to join us today," Goss, of Annapolis, Md., told them.

The Afghans were simultaneously grateful and a bit mystified about Thanksgiving.

"It's something very new for me," said Rahmatullah Himat, the governor of Kunar's Norgul district.

U.S. troops at the 400-person base said they felt honored to serve and supported at home, even if most Americans didn't understand what it was like being in a war zone.

"Even being in the military, I don't think I fully understand what it's like to be here, until I leave," said Army Capt. Ryan E. Oliver, 27, of Atlanta. "It'd be nice to sleep in and eat mom's cooking and watch football all day. There's always next year."

Goble, of Gadsden, Ala., was on the flight line at the time of the attack, and rushed his men to the temporary safety of a hardened structure, before going back outside to check on others' safety and push parked, locked vehicles away from the fire. A second rocket-propelled grenade flew 10 feet overhead, he said.

Five pictures of his newly adopted daughter, Lily, aged 10 months, adorned the space near his desk. The 16-year Army veteran said this holiday was harder than others. "It's more difficult for me this year, missing first Thanksgivings and first Christamases."

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