Some troops not happy with historic visit
December 5, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — Amid the fanfare of his surprise visit to Baghdad on Thanksgiving, some soldiers were not all that happy with the President Bush’s pop-in, and some felt gypped out of a Thanksgiving meal.
One soldier wrote to Stars and Stripes voicing displeasure that those under his command were told that during the president’s visit at the Baghdad International Airport for a quick meal and meet-and-greet, they weren’t allowed in.
“Imagine [my soldiers’] dismay when they walked 15 minutes to the Bob Hope Dining Facility, only to find that they were turned away from their evening meal because they were in the wrong unit,” wrote Sgt. Loren Russell in a letter to the editor, published Wednesday.
For security reasons, only those pre-selected got into the facility during Bush’s visit. But not one was denied their meal that day, according to Lt. Col. Mark Olinger, deputy chief of staff for Logistics for the Army’s 1st Armored Division.
For six months, Army planners coordinated and prepped for the holiday, and picked the Bob Hope Dining Facility at the Baghdad International Airport because it would allow the maximum number of soldiers to participate, he said. Other locations could accommodate 100 soldiers at most.
“Over 600 soldiers attended the event, who cheered and jumped to their feet when he entered,” Olinger said.
The soldiers who dined while the president visited were selected by their chain of command, and were notified a short time before the visit, said Olinger and Capt. David Gercken, a 1st AD spokesman.
“The hours for the dining facilities were published and publicized well prior to Thanksgiving,” Gercken said. “In particular, the dining facility at the airport maintained the same hours it posted prior to the president’s visit. The meal for the president was an additional meal.”
At the airport, two facilities served main dinner meals from noon to 3 p.m. Hours were extended at the Hope facility until 4 p.m. and reopened at 8 p.m. for another serving, Olinger said, staying open for more than five more hours.
“We did not close that facility until 1:30 a.m. I believe soldiers had multiple opportunities to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and I know of no soldiers being turned away,” he said.
In his letter, Russell acknowledges that his soldiers were told they could return later for their meals, and chose not to.
“Regardless, my soldiers chose to complain amongst themselves and eat MREs, even after the chow hall was reopened for ‘usual business’ … As a leader myself, I’d guess that other measures could have been taken to allow for proper security and still let the soldiers have their meal,” Russell wrote.
In Baghdad, soldiers celebrated Thanksgiving dinner at 32 locations throughout the city. Army cooks or Kellogg, Brown & Root employees prepared the meals and “quality was the same throughout the division task force,” Olinger said.