A statue of George Washington in the Capitol Rotunda in August. PHOTO: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
By James Freeman
Nov. 22, 2017 4:00 p.m. ET
Thanksgiving brings the counting of our blessings. Naturally an American thinks of the blessings of freedom and of the people who guarantee that we can continue to enjoy such blessings. In a lovely 2012 piece in the New York Times, Jennifer Rawlings describes what it’s like to spend Thanksgiving with this crew:
Thankfully the military family always has room for guests at its holiday table. I’m not in the military. I’m a performer who has had the privilege of entertaining the troops overseas, and I have been a frequent guest of the men and women in uniform during the holidays. I remember the first time I sat down for Thanksgiving dinner with the troops, in Kosovo in 2002. My plastic tray was full of food in various shades of brown. I didn’t know where to sit, I was alone and missing my kids. A group of soldiers waved me over, and shuffled their M-16’s to make room for me at the table. In many ways it was like sitting with my own family: everyone was talking at once and asking questions.
“My name is Andrea. I’m from Mississippi. Where are you from?”
“Can you please pass the Tabasco sauce? It makes the turkey taste better.’
“Do you want to see a picture of my kids? I haven’t seen them in five months. I’m going to call them after lunch and wish them ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’”
…Everyone at the table wove me into their conversation. I learned about their lives, their families, their jobs and their hearts. They told jokes and great stories. They reminisced about Thanksgiving at home with their families. A couple soldiers got choked up as they spoke about home. But like any good “brother” would do, another soldier would chime in with a one-liner to keep the spirit light. No tears or drama at this family table, just camaraderie and support. Taking time to celebrate and be thankful, and focusing on the moment of gratitude — not the loss.
The Marine Corps Association and Foundation quotes a 2008 letter from Iraq that expresses the same spirit. A young lance corporal explains to her parents that she had been “expecting a very homesick Thanksgiving.” That was before the welcome she and her comrades received when their convoy arrived at Camp Fallujah: “None of the posts had young Marines at them; Officers and Staff [non-commissioned officers] manned them all. The command decided that the young Marines were going to have the night offto get some good chow.” Senior officers then served the meal, which seems to have helped put everyone in a good mood. The young Marine writes:
So, as I went to bed, I felt very Thankful and indeed blessed for a great life. Tomorrow, I am sure will be full of fighting and disaster, along with the added stress of little sleep and cold days and even colder nights.
But, for tonight, it’s Thanksgiving and everything is okay.
The association also recounts the experience of Pfc. Richard Holgin, whose Marine unit was near Korea’s Chosin Reservoir in November of 1950:
One day they brought our chow up by truck to where we were. Wow! It was Thanksgiving dinner. I was 17 years old. We all lined up. The mess kits were oblong. One side had turkey, and the other side mashed potatoes and something else. No frills. I put my tray down on this 55- gallon drum and my hot coffee froze in my tin cup. I hurried up and ate the rest of my stuff before it froze.
It would be a long time before Pfc. Holgin or any of his fellow Marines enjoyed another hot meal. A few nights later they were attacked by twelve divisions of the Chinese army.
Seven years earlier, U.S. troops had been engaged elsewhere:
On 29 November, 1943, The Pittsburgh Post ran an article written by Richard Johnson, a United Press writer who was with the Marines at Tarawa. It read, “Back home about now, folks are settling down to celebrate Thanksgiving Day over heaping platters of turkey and fixin’s. Out here on this tiny Pacific atoll, which has just been bought with the blood of United States Marines, those of us who survive join fervently in those thanks. First of all, we are thankful that we are alive.”
Of course Americans have many people to thank beyond those who sacrificed during our recent history. During the Revolutionary War, losses in a series of bloody battles had the rebellious colonists on the brink of ultimate defeat and surrender. A 1777 victory at Saratoga turned the tide and inspired the Continental Congress to designate a national day of thanksgiving.
After victory in war and the drafting of our Constitution, the nation’s first President suggested how the citizens of this country might respond to our good fortune. On October 3, 1789 President George Washington issued a proclamation:
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks… for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
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