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Transplanted Traditions for Troops in Iraq

The green beans? A can. The greens? Also a can.

But nobody seemed to mind.

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

Fernas, the brigade's civil-military affairs officer, said he remembered the Thanksgiving he spent in the field when he was at Army Ranger school. He and the others had not eaten for several days, and there was a rumor that they would get a real meal. Instead, the instructors came out and threw them cold, prepackaged rations.

Capt. Sandra Sizemore, 32, whose husband and 3-year-old daughter moved to Alexandria, Va., while she was deployed in Iraq, said she would miss having Thanksgiving with her in-laws in West Virginia. At those gatherings, she said, everybody brings a dish to share. She is usually responsible for the green beans and mashed potatoes.

She awoke Thursday morning thinking about the holidays and how she would not spend them with her family, said Sizemore, who is in charge of coordinating humanitarian projects for the brigade. "But getting through the holidays means we're that much closer to going home."

For Arthur Bajouka, 39, an Iraqi American who works as a translator for the Army, this was his first Thanksgiving dinner in his native land. "It's kind of nice to celebrate with the soldiers," said Bajouka, who has lived in Michigan since 1983.

As the dining facility was about to close, Spec. John Spatig, 26, rushed in with a pack on his back, a heavy coat slung across his arm and his rifle on his shoulder. His face said: Did I miss the Thanksgiving meal?

Spatig, of Bethlehem, Pa., still had a few minutes before last call, so he hurried through the line, filling his plate with turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing.

He had just woken up, he said, and didn't have time to talk. "I have to get to guard duty in 15 minutes."

This was still a working day for soldiers in Iraq. Not even the sergeants took a break. During the early morning race, one of them ran back to join the rest of the pack after crossing the finish line.

"Come on, catch up," he yelled. "Run! Run!"

He kept running and yelling until he spotted a civilian, who was breathing hard and clipping along at a respectable pace of 7 1/2-minutes a mile. "Just 450 meters to go," he said softly, before dashing off to be a sergeant again.

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