AL-TAJI CAMP, Iraq—For American soldiers serving in the most dangerous place on Earth, Thanksgiving brought gratitude for life's pleasures: an autumn leaf mailed from home, a love note in an e-mail inbox, the taste of pumpkin pie.
The dining halls of this outpost in central Iraq were transformed Thursday into a cozy shelter from the war that raged outside. The walls were bedecked with streamers in fall's golden hues, chow lines overflowed with turkey and dressing, and soldiers toasted their survival with dainty plastic flutes of cranberry juice.
Not far away, a series of car bombings and mortar strikes in the Shiite Muslim stronghold of Sadr City killed as many as 160 Iraqis and wounded more than 200 in one of the deadliest sectarian attacks since the war began. Guards at the Iraqi Health Ministry in Baghdad fought off a violent insurgent takeover attempt. The U.S. military announced the deaths of three Marines during combat operations in Anbar province, bringing to 52 the number of American troops killed this month.
It was yet another bloody day in Iraq, and all the more reason to give thanks, said soldiers from the Army's homebound 4th Infantry Division and the recently returned 1st Cavalry Division.
"Most of them are just thankful to be able to survive each day. They're thinking about their families, but they're also thinking about the mission," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, on a Thanksgiving visit to his troops. "They're trying to turn the violence around, but this country is right on the edge. Iraq has enormous potential if people would stop killing each other."
The rigors of war cast a pall even over the festivities at al-Taji Camp, where troops were on "blackout," banned from making holiday calls home because of a soldier's suicide earlier this week. Blackouts are standard procedure intended to prevent relatives from learning prematurely about a soldier's death or injury.
Two of the medics who responded to the suicide sat at picnic tables outside to avoid the crush of hungry troops at the dining hall. A day away from returning home to Florida, the pair dug into pizzas and contemplated their year in Iraq. As first responders on the front line, they were the ones who collected body parts and tended to the wounded after mortar hits, roadside bombs and other insurgent violence.
"I guess this is it. Until next year," Sgt. John Adams of Orlando, Fla., said with a sigh. "I've been here about 12 months now."
"347 days," corrected Sgt. James Register, 35, of Tallahassee, Fla.
"I just want to be able to go home and not worry about going down the road and having a bomb go off or getting shot at. That gets old," Adams said.
Many soldiers said they relied on PlayStation tournaments, poker games, football watch parties, spy novels and prayer to take their minds off the family dinners they were missing at home. Others looked inward, seeking refuge in memory.
"My favorite, favorite season in Minnesota is fall," said Sgt. Nuala Taylor, 32, of Savage, Minn., whose son mailed her two stones and a leaf to boost her morale. "Oh, Lake Minnetonka. We'd go to the apple orchards, eat seasoned honey sticks. And I love the color of the leaves."
Back in Chief Warrant Officer Shealeana Stewart's hometown of Pass Christian, Miss., near Biloxi, her family would just be waking up to prepare a feast that blended traditional fare with the seafood of the Gulf Coast.
Stewart, 32, would soon join them after spending a year in Iraq overseeing a warehouse stocked with engine parts, spare tires and other potentially life-saving equipment. Her close friend, Chief Warrant Officer Tera Thomas, 34, of Havre, Mont., arrived last month to take over supervision of the warehouse.
With rifles slung across their backs, the friends stood in a long line for trays of turkey and talked about the sisterhood of female soldiers. They shared tips for streamlining supplies as well as hints on finding moisturizer in a war zone.
"I'm just thankful for my health and that I made it through," Stewart said. "And I'm thankful for my friend. We pray together and keep our spirits up."
Soldiers agreed they rarely divulge the extent of the bloodshed in Iraq during precious calls to their families. Instead, they fill the phone lines with mundane talk of bills, birthdays, homework, anything to avoid the tough questions: When are you coming home? What's life like over there?
"I leave most of that to myself," said Pfc. Daniel Bogucki, 22, of the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
In the dining hall, Bogucki ate a slice of pumpkin pie and declared it no match for his grandmother's. It was his second Thanksgiving in Iraq and, he hoped, his last.
When asked to describe the hardest part of his 16-month tour of duty, he put down his fork and gazed at the table.
"Losing my, losing my ...''
Tears streamed down his face, and he didn't finish the sentence.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.