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Troops and contractors eat Thanksgiving dinner at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017.

Troops and contractors eat Thanksgiving dinner at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes )

Troops and contractors eat Thanksgiving dinner at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017.

Troops and contractors eat Thanksgiving dinner at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes )

A Thanksgiving cake with NATO's logo on it was served at the alliance's Afghan headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017.

A Thanksgiving cake with NATO's logo on it was served at the alliance's Afghan headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes )

Vice Adm. Luke McCollum, chief of Navy Reserve and commander of the Navy Reserve Force, left, and Navy Rear Adm. Phillip Lee Jr. serve Thanksgiving dinner to troops and contractors at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017.

Vice Adm. Luke McCollum, chief of Navy Reserve and commander of the Navy Reserve Force, left, and Navy Rear Adm. Phillip Lee Jr. serve Thanksgiving dinner to troops and contractors at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. ( Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)

A waiter serves sparkling grape juice during Thanksgiving dinner at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. Alcohol is prohibited on the base.

A waiter serves sparkling grape juice during Thanksgiving dinner at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. Alcohol is prohibited on the base. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes )

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rebekah Gerber, left, and Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Bernsen enjoy Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rebekah Gerber, left, and Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Bernsen enjoy Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes )

Vice Adm. Luke McCollum, chief of Navy Reserve and commander of the Navy Reserve Force, left, and Navy Rear Adm. Phillip Lee Jr. serve Thanksgiving dinner to troops and contractors at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017.

Vice Adm. Luke McCollum, chief of Navy Reserve and commander of the Navy Reserve Force, left, and Navy Rear Adm. Phillip Lee Jr. serve Thanksgiving dinner to troops and contractors at NATO's Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. ( Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan — American military brass served Thanksgiving dinner to troops and contractors at NATO’s Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul on Thursday.

“We wanted to come and express our appreciation for all the men and women who are serving away from their families,” said Vice Adm. Luke McCollum, chief of Navy Reserve and commander of the Navy Reserve Force, in between serving meals at the base’s dining hall.

McCollum dished out food along with Navy Rear Adm. Phillip Lee Jr., deputy chief of chaplains for Reserve matters. Both officers flew from Washington specifically to spend the holiday with U.S. servicemembers at the base.

“Being this far away from home on a holiday is difficult,” Lee said. “And we as leadership want to communicate at the highest degree that we don’t take that for granted.”

McCollum and Lee later sat down for dinner with Navy reservists. About 70 are stationed at the base.

One of them, Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Bernsen, was spending his first Thanksgiving away from his 5-year-old son.

“That makes it a little hard,” he said, “but being able to have a nice meal and relax is good. They are trying to make it as normal as possible because life here is not normal, normally.”

To make the holiday more “normal,” a traditional turkey-and-cranberry dinner was served. The dining hall was decorated with autumnal ornaments and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was showing on a television.

“It’s nice to be around people in a happier, more relaxed environment, including the NATO personnel,” said Navy Lt. Casey Colton, also a reservist.

Before dinner on Thursday, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rebekah Gerber attended a graduation ceremony at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, where more than 300 men and 26 women became officers. An Afghan woman was named the distinguished graduate for the first time.

“Being able to come back here where women and men are more equal, it definitely gives me so much to be thankful for,” Gerber said, adding that she was happy to be spending the holiday with her military family.

“I’m not sad,” she said, smiling. “I love these guys. We get to hang out, and we get to pick on each other just like you do with a normal family on Thanksgiving Day.”

There are approximately 14,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, according to official figures. That number includes 3,000 servicemembers who recently were deployed to the country as part of the Trump administration’s new South Asia strategy.

Most of the troops are affiliated with NATO’s Afghan mission, which trains, advises and assists local security forces. Others help with the U.S.’s separate counterterrorism mission, which targets groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State. There is also an undisclosed number of special operations Forces in the country.

Nearly all the roughly 40 nations that support the NATO mission have servicemembers living at the Kabul base. All nationalities were welcome to the Thanksgiving meal.

wellman.phillip@stripes.com Twitter: @pwwellman

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Phillip is a reporter and photographer for Stars and Stripes, based in Kaiserslautern, Germany. From 2016 to 2021, he covered the war in Afghanistan from Stripes’ Kabul bureau. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics.

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