Thanksgiving in Afghanistan
by Derrick G. Jeter
Thanksgiving is behind us and Christmas looms large on the calendar. If you’re like my family, we had just barely finished our turkey and dressing—and my third slice of pie—before I climbed the attic ladder and in a tryptophan induced coma pulled out the Christmas decorations, throwing the house—as it does every year—into a state of chaotic disarray.
I for one love Thanksgiving, not just for the eating, but because it is a uniquely American holiday and it is decommercialized. Other than A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, I can’t think of one television program or movie that deals with Thanksgiving—I like that. Nor can I think of one commercial song extolling the Pilgrims or Indians—I like that, too.
But more than this, I love Thanksgiving because it offers us a whole day to pause and give gratitude to God for His cornucopia of blessings. And some of those blessings are the men and women—children of God, all—who stand at lonely and dangerous posts around the world to protect our freedoms.
Your turkey is a distant memory now. The yellow and orange of Thanksgiving has given way to the red and green of Christmas. But before you pack this year’s Thanksgiving memories away to make room for Christmas memories, pause just for another few minutes and read this letter from a security officer in Afghanistan, and then give thanks to God for all those who serve under the flag for you and me.
I woke up this morning thinking that I would feel even further from home than usual. In the past few days, I had casually asked some of the local Afghan staff if they knew anything about the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Each time, I would have to explain, as no one had heard of it. In a few instances, I did my best to explain that a turkey was a bird, and it had nothing to do with the country Turkey. The best I could do was “Big Chicken” followed by a “gobble” noise. I still don’t know if they nodded in recognition, or just to placate the crazy American.
I received a phone call from an old war buddy, affectionately known as “Higg.” . . . Higg called to invite me to his base for . . . Thanksgiving. He went on about ham and velvet cake and cobbler. I could smell the food as he talked about it, and I imagined my belt feeling tight after a traditional feast. Part of me knew to not get too excited, as plans change in the blink of an eye. Countless times, I have had to cancel travel plans due to attacks and intelligence reports of threats specifically against western Ex patriots [sic] and soldiers. The plan was to head down to his location, with my boss in tow. . . .
To my surprise, our cook, Javid, had somehow secured 5 turkeys! He asked me how to make mashed potatoes, and I was amazed that I actually remembered how. Javid’s gesture was incredible, but I still did not let myself get too excited. What passes as American food here is not even close to the real thing. I once had a “hamburger” made of SPAM, cucumbers, Tabasco and potato bread. The attempt of a local cook to cook a bird he had only just heard of . . . well, my taste buds were in a holding pattern.
Soon, the familiar smell of Thanksgiving filled the air. I went to the kitchen to find Javid smiling ear to ear. His friend was pushing boiled potatoes through a meat grinder, because there was no other way to mash them. A pot of green beans was on the stove top, and one of the turkeys was being pulled from the oven. Javid asked me to try the mashed potatoes, and I was excited to find that they tasted almost as good as Mom’s (sorry Mom, you have to factor in that there is a sentimental element that effects the taste buds).
I called Higg, and confirmed that Doug and I were going to meet him at the base at 2:00pm. I was reminded of every holiday since I was 18, eating with Mom, then after, repeating the ritual with Dad. I guess the tradition would be continued between two new families. As I was walking down the stairs, I heard the rumbling “boom” of an explosion. I hear them frequently, so it was nothing out of the ordinary. Within five minutes, Bahir, a trusted Afghan friend, told me that there had just been a suicide attack at the US Embassy. I went to the roof (better cellular reception) and called an Australian friend who lives close to the Embassy. He answered, and immediately said, “This thing is still going on, I need to call you back.”
Lunch was served, and I was surprised how eagerly the locals devoured the food. Doug said a few words about the history and meaning of the day, and I followed by sharing what I was thankful for. I spoke of new friends, and freedom, and family that was safe at home (all but one). A young man, Ali, then stood up, and shared what he was thankful for: friends and a chance to be included in our holiday. The spirit of Thanksgiving took root, and without coaching or provocation, the locals took turns standing and sharing what made them grateful. It was just like I had done every Thanksgiving, and I felt a little closer to home.
I called my Aussie friend to see if there was any developments regarding the attack. I needed to know the conditions if I was going to venture into that area. The news was grim. A coalition convoy was hit and there was intel[ligence] suggesting more would occur. What’s more, four soldiers were killed. I informed Doug and called Higg to break the news that I was not coming. I don’t think Mom would like me taking such a risk for a piece of velvet cake. I was disappointed at the thought of missing out on my plans to catch up with an old friend. And then I thought of the four soldiers, and four empty chairs in four different homes. I thought of the time difference in the States, and how four families would get the news right about the time the turkey hit the table.
. . . I just wanted to share my feelings with those that matter to me. I am thankful for so many things, and it took being so far away from friends and family to truly feel that way. Mom and Ernie: I picture myself there in Dallas, coming over way too early and long talks in the kitchen, weighing my options on how much Mississippi mud to eat, versus how much room to leave in my stomach for Amy’s green bean casserole. I see Amy, Courtney and Mom, trying not to giggle as I ask the traditional Thanksgiving/Christmas question, “Do you know the best thing about eating corn?” For those that are not familiar, the answer is not appropriate for the table. I picture Dad and I sneaking out to go shooting, or begging Mary Jo to stop messing around in the kitchen and let us share her company.
I have counted my blessings today, and I came up with a few that I can only enjoy at home on Thanksgiving. I am thankful for triptafan [sic] induced comas and Dr. Pepper burps. I am thankful for the only day I can stand to watch sports on TV. I am thankful [for] Kristi squeezing my hand the second everyone says “Amen”. I am grateful for that third piece of cake that no one saw me eat; the sound of my giggling nieces and nephews as Elisabeth asks Uncle Aaron to come play, and the smell of turkey on my fingers. I am also thankful for Matt, Julie, Myriam, Pancho and Lefty for making me and Kristi a part of their family. I am grateful for my friends at Evans (teachers and students, alike) for your letters and concern. I am grateful for the largest family ever, from Austin, Dallas, Stillwater, Houston, Apache and Washington. In my travels over the years, I have never felt forgotten or left out, and I have felt your prayers cover me like a warm blanket. I am grateful to be married to the most resilient and wonderful woman in the world.
Kristi, this is not our first Thanksgiving spent in different countries. I know George Bush is not there this time to serve you turkey, so I hope you don’t feel let down. I just want to tell my wife, family and friends “Happy Thanksgiving,” and I am thinking of all of you.1
Maybe we could give thanks just one more time before we lose ourselves and our God in the bustle of Christmas. What do you think, will you bow with me one more time and thank God for men like Aaron Self?
1. Aaron Self is a security officer in Afghanistan. He emailed this letter to family and friends, include Evans Middle School in McKinney, Texas where he served as School Resource Officer. Edited and reprinted with permission from the author.