FALLUJAH, Iraq – It was 3 a.m. Thanksgiving morning and a Marine everyone calls "Wash" sat on a frigid concrete curb, reflecting on the holiday he was spending in this violent patch of western Iraq.
"There are times when you think it would be nice to be home, nice to be with the ones you love," said Staff Sgt. Dominco Washington, who was waiting in the dark along a wind-swept Fallujah side street for another company of Marines to finish sweeping houses in the area.
"But you can't think too much about yourself, get too down and be a disruption to the other guys," said the 30-year-old, who hails from Northfolk, Virginia, but lives with his wife and 10-year-old daughter on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
From their positions across Iraq's dangerous and insurgent-dominated Anbar province, more than 20,000 Marines quickly and quietly marked Thanksgiving on Thursday — then got back to work.
At Camp Fallujah, a sprawling and well-fortified base outside the still-volatile city of the same name, Brig. Gen. Robert Neller, the deputy Marine commander in western Iraq, hosted a morning church service, and troops began erecting a wall of photographs of family, friends and fellow Marines for whom they were thankful.
There was a flag football tournament on fields of hard-packed sand that became blanketed by blinding dust whenever medical evacuation helicopters took off or landed nearby.
"Thanksgiving is food and football, that's what we do every year. It's America, even if we're in Iraq," said Cpl. Daniel J. English from Antwerp, Ohio.
Standing nearby, Lance Cpl. Kyle Peterson, a Philadelphia native, added "We're out here playing with guys who are like our family." Both he and English are assigned to the Marines' 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion.
A television lounge on-base planned to show NFL games live, even though they don't start here until the middle of the night, and cardboard turkeys, pumpkins and pilgrims in belt-buckle hats were plastered around many buildings.
Inside the camp's two sprawling mess halls, 3-foot turkey sculptures fashioned out of butter greeted the troops, who piled their trays high with roast turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cornbread and eggnog, as well as pumpkin and four other varieties of pie. The menu also included prime rib, crab legs, shrimp cocktail, fried chicken and collard greens.
"It's the most important day of the year for us," said Raymond Yung, director of one of the food service crews at Camp Fallujah.
U.S. Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter arrived in Iraq on Wednesday and visited the camp while touring several Anbar locations.
"The morale seems very good. Yes, they have thoughts of home as everybody does, but I think that they recognize the importance of their mission and many have told me that very directly and without prompting," Winter said in a lunchtime interview. "The sense that the sailors and the Marines have is that they are making progress."
Much of Winter's schedule was classified, but he planned to visit U.S. ships in the North Arabian Gulf for two days beginning Friday.
At remote military outposts, special convoys brought turkey to some Marines, but others had to settle for the same rations as a normal Thursday.
"You get used to it, missing the holidays, because you're always gone," said Cpl. Adam Kruse, of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's Headquarters Group.
Kruse left Camp Fallujah on Wednesday for a multiple-day mission to hunt for roadside bombs, and said he wouldn't have time to do much Thanksgiving celebrating. A native of Huron, South Dakota, he will likely still be gone when he turns 21 on Saturday.
When asked what he planned to do for his birthday, Kruse didn't hesitate: "Don't get shot."
Washington and other members of the 3rd Reconnaissance Military Transition Team were still going near dawn of Thanksgiving, after a search mission in the city of Fallujah's southern Nazaal District that began at 10 p.m. Wednesday ran long.
Assigned to train and equip Iraq's army, Washington spoke to a journalist three hours after the municipal power went out for the night, leaving only the stars overhead to cut through pitch-black darkness. A pair of Iraqi soldiers sprawled out on a sidewalk nearby fell asleep while they waited and started to snore, despite the occasional pop-pop-pop of distant gunfire.
"While you're here you're thankful for your team," Washington said. "You're thankful that all the guys with you are all right."
Daniel Berry, a reservist from the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, was one of the few Marines who could have said "no." Normally an assistant store manager in Nashville, Tennessee, Berry spent seven months in Iraq in 2004, then volunteered to come back again this year and was sent to Fallujah.
He said this was his first Thanksgiving away from home, but was quick to add, "I've got a job to do."
"I didn't join the Marines to sit at home," the 25-year-old said. "This is a worthwhile cause and it's going to take some time. Home will always be waiting for me when I'm finished here."