Giving Thanks for Those Who Serve

Veterans reflect on Thanksgiving dinners far from home

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How does your family “celebrate” Veterans Day? For many of us, it’s not even a day off from work or school. If we don’t have veterans in the immediate family, the day can pass with little more than a thought. Come Thanksgiving, we’ll remember our families and count our blessings. Some of us might take a moment to remember the troops who’ve served, and continue to serve, in the defense of our country.

At Thanksgiving, the most purely family-centered holiday of the year, we eat the same dishes, often prepared the way Grandma’s grandma did, with the friends and family who mean the most to us. But what’s it like for soldiers spending this holiday far from home, at war? I wanted to know, and to be able to talk with my kids about it. So I visited Post 11333, the Dr. R. Q. Venson Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, where a group of Vietnam vets were gathered for their monthly meeting.

Army vet Eugene Mcduffie remembered one Thanksgiving this way. He’d been in combat on the day itself, but returned to base five or six days later. “They’d saved us some food. It was canned turkey, and Jello served as Kool-Aid.” As he mentioned this, another man chuckled. “You needed to be careful it didn’t get chunky,” he said. Several of the men remembered C-rations dating back to before World War II. Johnny Pulliam, also an Army man, recalled eating biscuits in a can and chocolate that had gone white. “It had no taste, and you had to chew it for a while before it would start tasting like chocolate again.”  

But it wasn’t all bad. When the Navy’s Eddie Murphy ate his Thanksgiving dinner at Camp Tien Sha, they had an unannounced visitor: President Lyndon Johnson. “He helped feed us,” said Murphy. “Shook up the whole nation. It was a blessing to shake his hand.” And that meal was a good one, with turkey, cranberry sauce, dressing, beans, mince pie, ice cream, iced tea, and spaghetti.

Murphy’s first Thanksgiving at home was also unusual, and maybe more like the Pilgrims’ feast. He headed to see relatives in Louisiana, where they ate “wild food: duck, gator, turkey, possum, deer. I ate three pieces of gator without knowing it wasn’t catfish.” Mcduffie, who serves as the VFW post’s commander, ate well when he returned, too. He called both his wife and his mother “the best cook in the world,” though they had different specialties — one made her dressing with bread, and the other with cornbread. His Thanksgiving included all the usual dishes, with the addition of glazed ham and pineapple, strawberry-rhubarb pie, banana pudding, hard cider, eggnog, and chocolate cake.

The chocolate cake caught my attention. Johnny Pulliam mentioned it, too — German chocolate cake, the kind with pecans, coconut, and gooey caramel between the layers. Cake runs counter to all my stodgy New England notions of what a Thanksgiving feast should include, but if a vet wants cake after his turkey, he can have it — and eat it, too.

Our conversation inspired me to try something different. So this year, we’ll have a couple of new traditions at our table. First, we’ll be enjoying a German chocolate pie, because at Thanksgiving I’m too lazy and full to bake or eat cake. And second, we’ll talk about what it means to be safe at home, and about those — the Pilgrims, our Armed Forces, and anyone who ever took a chance to come to America — who celebrate this holiday in alien surroundings.


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