COS ECHO, Iraq — American troops marked their last Thanksgiving in Iraq Thursday with turkey, stuffing and a rocket fire alarm.
Fewer than 20,000 American troops remain in Iraq at eight bases across the country. All of the forces must be out of Iraq by the end of this year, and American soldiers have been busily packing up their equipment and heading south.
Many of the bases no longer have civilian contractors making meals for them, so the troops have been eating prepackaged meals.
At COS Echo in southern Iraq, the soldiers celebrated the occasion with a special meal including turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Bottles of nonalcoholic sparkling cider were brought in especially for the occasion. The incoming rocket alarm was nothing special for the holiday — they’re heard all the time.
Lt. Col. Robert Michael Rodriguez from Santa Fe, N.M. said they worked especially hard to make the food as good as possible for what could be the last Thanksgiving in a war zone for many of the assembled troops.
“All of the commanders and the first sergeants and myself have been serving the soldiers all day. All the fixings, turkey, ham, lobster, shrimp. Trying to make it as close to home as possible,” he said.
Thanksgivings in the U.S. are more about food and footballs games, not warfare. The afternoon meal at Echo was marked by the distinctive, loud whirring sound signaling incoming fire at the base, and all the soldiers hit the floor. It was unclear if anything hit the base located near Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.
U.S. military officials have blamed Shiite militias backed by Iran for much of the violence in southern Iraq directed at departing American forces.
Attacks have let up in recent months compared to the frequent rocket barrages fired at U.S. troops over the spring and summer. American commanders say they are prepared for further violence against their forces as U.S. troops leave the country.
“They are probably going to shoot at us the last day that we are here,” Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top American general in Iraq told soldiers during a stop at Camp Victory in Baghdad Thursday.
Austin spent the day touring many of the remaining bases around the country including Echo. He said he has spent six of his last nine Thanksgivings deployed in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar.
As he prepares to wrap up America’s military presence in Iraq, Austin said he is heartened by the improvements that he’s seen since he first came into the country with the initial invasion force in 2003.
“We’ve seen things ebb and flow, and we’ve seen a very persistent effort to help the Iraqis move forward. And you can see that progress as you go from place to place. It’s going to take time, and we’re hopeful that the right decisions will continue to be made,” Austin told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.
The dangers Iraq faces after American troops leave was on display Thursday. In the southern city of Basra, 19 people were killed and dozens more injured when three bombs went off in an open-air market.
Violence has dropped considerably since the dark days of the insurgency, but the threat from Shiite militias with loyalties to Iran, as well as Sunni militants such as al-Qaida, remains potent.
Many of the troops marking the U.S. military’s eighth and final Thanksgiving in Iraq have experienced multiple deployments, as part of an all-volunteer military that has been waging wars on two fronts for nearly a decade.
“I came here in the invasion. It was a little rough at the beginning. We lost a lot of friends, lost a lot of battle buddies,” said Sgt. 1st Class Fred Enrique Fox from Ft. Hood, Texas. “It got better tour after tour, but the first one was the hardest one.”
The 32-year-old said he has done four tours in Iraq and has spent time in Fallujah, once the center of the insurgency in Anbar province, and the once-volatile city of Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad.
During this tour his platoon is helping secure the main road through Iraq, by which almost all American equipment and many U.S. soldiers will travel out of the country into Kuwait by the end of this year.
He said he is looking forward to being home to see the birth of his baby daughter in February, but now he’s concentrating on getting his troops home safely.
“That is my biggest focus, making sure my 24 guys get home alive,” he said before going back to help serve food to the troops.