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Transplanted Traditions for Troops in Iraq

Turkey Trot and Holiday Feast Offer Respite at a Base Warmed by Thoughts of Home

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page A26

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, Iraq, Nov. 25 -- The race started like any other, with the pop of a gun and the sudden slap of tennis shoes on the hard mud. The sun had just started to peek above the purple horizon, and the air was cold, New England cold.

The strand of runners, most in black shorts and matching gray T-shirts and windbreakers, curved past a pair of guard towers, a column of sandbags, rusting Iraqi helicopters and the ammo depot. In a wide, 3.1-mile circle, they just ran -- lungs burning, hearts beating. In a place where death comes suddenly around the bend, they ran for no particular reason except to feel alive.

Capt. John Fernas pours sparkling juice at a Thanksgiving meal near Baqubah. (Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)

There was Gatorade at the second-kilometer mark of the 5K race, but no one calling out times. There were no medals at the finish line, only the satisfaction of knowing that some Thanksgiving traditions, like the Turkey Trot, can be transplanted -- even to the palm groves and farm fields near Baqubah in eastern Iraq.

Thanksgiving Day brought more than a race to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, whose soldiers are among the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq who celebrated the holiday away from their families. At a long table at the Warhorse dining facility, which was crowded with U.S. troops and soldiers from the former Soviet republic of Georgia who are based here, Capt. John Fernas, 29, poured sparkling juice into brown coffee cups and raised his glass in a toast.

"We don't have family here, but we are with good friends," Fernas said.

At the back of the hall, a thin rope cordoned off a single place setting on a white tablecloth. Behind the empty chair hung the pictures of the 27 1st Infantry soldiers who have died in Iraq. A serving of corn and mashed potatoes sat untouched

At home in the United States, he would be gathering at his grandparents' house, said Fernas, of Vineland, N.J. "My grandmother would bake every kind of pie you can imagine," he said. His favorite is pumpkin. But he had to settle for apple this Thanksgiving when he could not find any pumpkin left in the cooler at the dining facility.

Civilian cooks, with soldiers supervising them, prepared a multi-course meal for the troops. Large silver platters in the center of the dining facility were filled with shrimp cocktail, which soldiers nibbled on while waiting in a long line to reach the servers, in white chef's hats and aprons, dishing out freshly carved roast turkey, prime rib, smoked ham and Cornish hens. There were also fresh crab legs, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans and hot rolls.

"Back home, we'd have a big, fat goose," said Sgt. 1st Class Roger Jeanice as he stood behind the buffet, the steam from the roast meat covering him in a thick mist as he served a helping of turkey.

Staff Sgt. John Abuan, 34, of Guam, was in charge of monitoring the food line. After two hours, he took a break and sat down to a plastic plate of Cornish hen and mashed potatoes, washed down with Gatorade.

Abuan said the civilian cooks started Wednesday and worked through the night to make Thanksgiving dinner for 2,013 people. The food was imported from the United States to Kuwait, Abuan said, then sent by truck to a military base in Balad, just north of Baghdad, and on to Warhorse.

The mashed potatoes, he was asked, tell the truth, were they real or instant? They tasted like the real deal.

"They were made out of powder," Abuan said, grinning.

What about the pumpkin pies? Surely they were homemade. "A box."

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