FALLUJAH, Iraq – Lt. Sven Jensen's U.S. Marines (search) unit survived for weeks on military rations while living rough in Iraq's Fallujah, so he wrangled a truck Thursday and drove his men to the rear for a rare treat: Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry sauce.
While millions of Americans on the home front cheered good fortune and life's bounty Thursday, U.S. forces still under enemy fire in central Iraq sought a hot meal while remembering fallen comrades and offering thanks for the safety of their friends and family stateside.
One Marine, Cpl. Matthew Hummel, forgot the day's celebration. "Days get to blur here, someone had to remind me this morning," said Hummel, 21, from Easley, S.C.
The Fallujah (search) fight "was a nerve-racking experience, so I plan to give thanks that I'm still alive, that my friends and family are well back home, that my girl is waiting for me," he said.
U.S. forces manning front lines in the Sunni Triangle (search) where Iraq's insurgency rages frequently live in abandoned buildings, where they huddle against an early winter chill and excavate brown, plastic pouches of vacuum-packed meals for prized Skittles and M&Ms.
For Jensen, of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, it was time for a break. So he requisitioned a vehicle and drove 40 fellow Marines to a chow hall, where a cornucopia awaited.
"It means more than just the first cooked food they'll have in over two weeks," said Jensen, a 25-year-old from Cobb Mountain, Calif., surrounded by servicemen tucking into Thanksgiving plates at a cavernous chow hall.
They joined a holiday celebration among U.S. soldiers at bases around the world, from an air field in Kyrgyzstan in the former Soviet Union — where soldiers decorated their cargo vehicles as floats for a makeshift parade — to Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia — where the region's president joined troops for corn, pumpkin cake and gravy-covered roasted turkey. In Iraq, fighting went on right through the holiday.
"Thanksgiving will help us forget for a while the things we saw in Fallujah, the execution chambers we could smell even before we saw them," Jensen said, referring to buildings where Marine intelligence officers say the enemy carried out beheadings and torture.
Lance Cpl. Christopher Brungo waited impatiently all day in Iraq for 8 a.m. to strike in Mount Vernon, Va., so he could phone his mother for the first time in a month and wish her a happy Thanksgiving. Iraq is eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
"We got here Sept. 11 and that day is marked down as a real bad day," said Brungo, 19, a machine gunner on one of the Humvees that made the initial push into Fallujah when the assault began Nov. 8.
"But I'd much rather be here with the rest of my friends and buddies than at home where it's safe. Knowing that I'm doing something important here matters," Brungo said.
Service in Iraq has inspired another Marine, Cpl. Jesse Cowan, to become a minister.
"I have seen here in Iraq a need for God in people's lives," said Cowan, 22, from Huntsville, Ala. "I just wish everyone would have that. If these trials can make me stronger that I can serve God better — so be it."
At the chow hall, workers laid out two giant cakes. One was inscribed with Psalm 116:17 in chocolate frosting: "I will offer to Thee the sacrifice of Thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord."
Each table had a card wishing the troops well, sent by post from children back home.
"I am praying about you," wrote Josie, from Missouri.
"I am thankful for you saving America," read another card, signed Monica Dirko, 2nd grade.
For Marines on patrol in Fallujah's shattered streets, food workers arranged delivery. In what they called "Operation Meals on Wheels," Marines loaded up a convoy of three seven-ton trucks carrying turkey, stuffing and soda.
"It made the Marines glad, it brought them just a little bit closer to home," said Staff Sgt. John Flores, 32, of San Antonio. "The operation was a tremendous success."