KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan — Few of the soldiers here thought much about making history as they gathered for the first-ever Thanksgiving Day feast at the Kandahar governor’s provincial compound.
Some 35 GIs and as many Afghans filed into the great dining hall as a mullah’s voice cracked over a nearby loudspeaker, calling the faithful to prayer at the Shrine of the Cloak. Believed to house a piece of the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, the mosque is the holiest place in Afghanistan for Muslims.
The governor’s residence, built in the shadow of the shrine, was the home of Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Omar while he presided over the Afghan government. He was ousted in late 2001 by U.S. and Afghan forces following the 9/11 attacks.
As soldiers gathered around two tables that ran the length of the ornate dining hall, they gave thanks and remembered those who have died in the 11-year-long war.
“Every one of us has lost an Afghan and American comrade in this conflict,” said Col. Mike Considine, provincial senior adviser.
“We’re thankful that we’re still here,” Considine said before briefly explaining the history of the holiday to his Afghan hosts.
Afghan police officer Naqueebullah Haqparast then led a prayer, calling for unity among the tribes of Afghanistan and imploring them to work together for the country’s future.
Army cook Spc. Rafael Stabe, who had spent the day preparing the meal, was relieved when the dinner was finally under way.
“At first, I was a little intimidated, but we planned it out and everything came together,” said Stabe, who credited three Afghan colleagues for helping him cook.
“These are good guys, and I would work with them from any kitchen in the world,” Stabe said. “They can roast turkey with me any day.”
Though most of the soldiers enjoyed the celebration, many couldn’t help thinking about loved ones spending the holiday without them. It was the little things they missed — green bean casserole or homemade cranberry sauce.
For Pfc. Nikole Samuelson, the day was especially tough.
“It’s the first Thanksgiving away from my family,” Samuelson said. “It made me miss home.”
Making things even tougher, Samuelson, who is newly married to a soldier, spent the day knowing her husband was just a few miles away at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City. “So close but so far away, I guess,” Samuelson said. She planned to speak with him by phone later in the day.
Staff Sgt. Ramon Fierro, away from his wife and son back in the States, found a reason — a need — to celebrate. When he awoke, he had forgotten it was a holiday, but said he tried to get in the spirit for his Joes.
“I’m grateful to be alive,” said Fierro, who has spent four of the last five Thanksgivings deployed to a war zone. “Life stops here, but seeing another day just gets you closer to home.”