Cpl. Brian Zwart set out his turkey, stuffing, corn and mashed potatoes on a makeshift picnic table — the hood of a Humvee — before going out to patrol the Syrian border Thursday to watch for foreign militants sneaking in to join Iraq's insurgency.
"Serving my country is important but losing friends makes me more thankful for what I have and for what I used to take for granted," the 20-year-old Marine from Fruitport, Mich., said as American fighting men and women celebrated a third Thanksgiving in Iraq.
U.S. troops around the world marked the holiday in a variety of ways, serving a traditional turkey meal to Serb schoolchildren in Kosovo, dining on food ladled out by senior officers in Afghanistan and staging a parade of makeshift floats in Kyrgyzstan.
For many of the 140,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Iraq, Thanksgiving Day was another work day — albeit with special holiday meals. Troops in Baghdad and elsewhere turned out for three-mile fun runs called "Turkey Trots" before resuming security patrols and other duties.
"We feel like we're protecting our friends, family and loved ones back home," said Lt. Col. Guy Glad, a military chaplain from Colorado Springs, Colo. "On the other hand, the holidays can be a somber, sad day for soldiers away from home. Many young soldiers are away from home for the first time."
There was no respite from violence. Two American soldiers were reported killed by a roadside bomb southwest of Baghdad and a car bombing south of the capital wounded four other soldiers.
"I could be sitting on the couch at home watching football with my dad. Instead I'm driving in Iraq," said Marine Lance Cpl. Kyle Maxwell, 21, of Petaluma, Calif., who spent his first Thanksgiving away from home serving in Qaim on Iraq's border with Syria.
Hundreds of Marines along that frontier are living in new bases without hot food, showers or toilets.
"I miss not seeing my little daughter run around the Thanksgiving table," said Cpl. Chaz Wheeler, 22, of Columbus, Ohio, speaking of his 2-year-old girl, Amelia.
In the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, a small choir sang religious songs before soldiers dined at tables decorated with candles and flowers. Soldiers also cut large cakes, including one shaped as a Bible with frosting verses and another in the shape of a cross.
"We give them the traditional dinner to make them feel a little better about where they are," said chef Baron Whitehurst, who spent a week preparing a Thanksgiving feast for about 5,000 people, mostly soldiers.
In Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, soldiers set up a "fallen comrade" table for those killed, laying plates and lighting candles on a black tablecloth in front of several empty seats to remember the soldiers killed during their tour.
At Forward Operating Base Speicher north of the capital, country singer Aaron Tippin performed for soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division.
Senior officers served the holiday meal to the lower ranks at Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan. Soldiers, some with their weapons slung over their shoulders, lined up for turkey and the trimmings, pumpkin and custard pies and fresh fruit.
At Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, where 1,200 U.S. military personnel and 50 Spanish soldiers support refueling and cargo missions for operations in nearby Afghanistan, troops celebrated with a parade of military vehicles decorated as a turkey, a house and a satellite dish.
The troops got a few extra hours off on to contact their families and to enjoy meals that included shrimp cocktail, roast turkey, baked ham and mashed potatoes.
At Camp Bondsteel, the main U.S. military base in U.N.-administered Kosovo, U.S. peacekeeping troops ate shrimp cocktail, roast turkey, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie in a dining hall adorned with red turkeys and orange, yellow and red streamers.
Lt. Col. Clinton Moyer, a National Guardsman from Clearwater, Kan., used his holiday time to give young ethnic Serbs in the snow-covered village of Vrbovac a taste of a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
"Boy, you're in for a treat!" Moyer told the 17 youngsters, who sat quietly at their school desks eating turkey, cranberry sauce, dried meat, nuts and cinnamon rolls served on blue plastic plates.
Moyer, who is a teacher back home, talked about how Thanksgiving came to be celebrated, hoping to convey a message of unity in a province still bearing the scars of war and deep divisions between its minority Serbs and the ethnic Albanians who dominate.
"The Thanksgiving story was one of hope for the people of America, because when they came to the New World it was a pretty rough place," Moyer said. "The people of Kosovo have to learn to live and work together and they have to help each other out."
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