ABOARD A U.S. NAVY SHIP IN THE PERSIAN GULF — It’s a time for ritual, renewing family bonds, reminiscing and eating too many sweet potatoes.
But if you’re one of nearly 340,000 active duty U.S. Navy personnel deployed on 81 ships and submarines around the world this Thanksgiving, it’s about this: sailors looking after sailors.
“We’re a warship, 24-7, but every Thanksgiving I’ve had at sea is special,” said Cmdr. Jason Lester, the commanding officer of USS Farragut, a 500-foot destroyer deployed here to help maintain maritime security for one of the world’s busiest transit points for oil tankers.
“Full bellies and sound hearts make strong war fighters,” he said.
Preparations for Thursday’s holiday meal on USS Farragut began several days ago. There’s turkey, ham, roast beef, shrimp cocktail and pies, all made in super-sized pans, pots and ovens to feed 320 service members from every corner of America.
“Some of my guys have been working all night,” said Lt. Alex Xia, 34, from Anaheim, California, who is responsible for buying all the ship’s supplies.
“This is a big deal for all us – being in the middle of nowhere really. We’re away from our families, but we’re here with the Farragut family. It’s a huge morale booster,” he said.
On Thanksgiving, the ship’s senior officers serve the entire crew.
“This is about us looking after our own,” said Lester, 42, who is from Georgia.
The ship’s mess hall had been made festive with decorations, including fall-colored streamers, paper leaves and pictures of pumpkins hung from USS Farragut’s intricate interior of steel panels, pipes and wires.
In one room, sailors had their pictures taken on Polaroid while standing in front of bunting that read “Give Thanks.” These will be mailed home, although it might take six to eight weeks to reach some locations.
“Whether I’m in the south Atlantic or the Arabian Gulf, the Navy family makes Thanksgiving a wonderful and enjoyable experience,” said Lt. Alex Cornell du Houx, 36, a public affairs officer who spent last Thanksgiving helping Argentina’s military search for a missing submarine.
At remote forward operating bases in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, America’s military can spend months planning for Thanksgiving meals and this year, the Department of Defense said that it delivered more than 300,000 pounds of traditional Thanksgiving fare to U.S. service members in the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
This includes: 4,925 whole turkeys, 66,741 pounds of roasted turkey, 80,546 pounds of beef, 43,648 pounds of ham, 44,384 pounds of shrimp, 27,605 pounds of sweet potatoes, 39,797 pies, 7,032 cakes and 5,804 gallons of eggnog, according to the Defense Logistic Agency, the Pentagon department that oversees the ordering and shipments.
The U.S. Navy has been celebrating Thanksgiving aboard vessels even before it became an official holiday, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving during the Civil War on Oct. 3, 1863. The menu has changed a little, however.
In 1917, “Mayonnaise Salad,” described as a “cold, layered sweet-savory dish that included mayonnaise, sugar and lettuce” was served on the the USS Arizona. “Oyster dressing,” a sauce that included the juice of shelled oysters, was a component of the Thanksgiving menu on the USS Case in 1929. Not that long ago, post-dinner cigars and cigarettes were available.
But no amount of turkey and cranberry sauce can substitute for being with friends and family on a day that has become synonymous with showing your gratitude for all that you have in life.
“It’s bitter-sweet. You have to make the best of it. You know you have to be here,” said Imani Bradley, 25, from St. Petersburg, Florida. Bradley is a signals analyst who monitors communication frequencies.
Back home in Florida, her three-year-old son is spending the day with his dad and grandparents. And, in a way, she’s keeping an eye on them, too.
“I miss them. But there will be more Thanksgivings. And I know what they’ll be doing anyway: stuffing their faces with food, and watching a lot of football,” she said.