Thousands of U.S. troops are spending Thanksgiving deployed to the American border with Mexico, joining fellow service members overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq who are marking the holiday away from loved ones — a familiar fact of life for those who serve.
The Pentagon shipped out more than 300,000 pounds of traditional Thanksgiving food, including 9,738 whole turkeys, to those stationed and deployed around the globe. A total of 799 pounds of turkey went to troops serving on the border in southern Texas.
Like many of the Pentagon’s initiatives, the Thanksgiving rollout was an affair of a giant scale: 51,234 pounds of roasted turkey, 16,284 pounds of sweet potatoes, 81,360 pies, 19,284 cakes and 7,836 gallons of eggnog. Forces around the world received the goods through the vast military supply chain that keeps those serving in combat equipped with everything from medicine to food.
“Many of America’s military men and women are away from home this Thanksgiving, making sacrifices to secure our freedom and to protect our southern border,” Army Brig. Gen. Mark Simerly, the commander of troop support for the Defense Logistics Agency, said in a statement. He said the military was providing them “the very best Thanksgiving meal our country has to offer.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Army North, which oversees the Army part of the deployment, said that Thursday would be a “light duty day” for troops deployed along the border, meaning they would be asked to do little, if any, work. No troops had been sent home to their regular duty stations or moved among the border mission sites, she said Wednesday.
Many bases host traditional Thanksgiving meals in their dining halls. Those deployed farther afield often find more creative ways to celebrate, whether that means frying a turkey on a combat outpost in Afghanistan or eating Thanksgiving dinner on a submarine.
A select few usually get treated to meals with senior leaders, who often visit the troops on Thanksgiving and Christmas as a show of thanks for their sacrifice. George W. Bush famously flew into Iraq under the cover of night to mark Thanksgiving with the troops in 2003, months after the invasion.
The tradition of making sure forces deployed over the Thanksgiving holiday receive their turkey dates back decades. The Pentagon supplied turkey and cranberry sauce to troops serving overseas during World War II. The tradition followed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the troops deployed to the border in Texas will mark Thanksgiving in place with the turkey sent over by the Pentagon. Others deployed to California and Arizona will go to military bases near where they are operating to celebrate the holiday, according to a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving festivities among deployed troops have been as uncontroversial as military events come, with the Pentagon widely publicizing sacrifices that those in uniform make while serving the country over the holidays.
But questions about the deployment of roughly 5,800 troops to the border with Mexico have made the Thanksgiving celebrations there something of a political football.
Critics have accused President Donald Trump of deploying forces to the border before the midterm elections in anticipation of a Central American migrant caravan as a political stunt, with some leaders saying the fact that the troops will also miss Thanksgiving with their families adds insult to injury.
“Over 5,000 American service members may have to spend Thanksgiving on the southern border – instead of with their families,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a tweet earlier this week. “Our troops and their families deserve better than to be used as props, @realDonaldTrump. Let them go home.”
Trump, who planned to spend the Thanksgiving holiday at his Mar-a-Lago estate, dismissed the criticism, saying those who were serving on the border were proud to be representing the United States there and deterring “tough people” from coming in.
“Don’t worry about the Thanksgiving. These are tough people,” Trump said earlier this week. “They know what they’re doing, and they’re great. And they’ve done a great job.”
Last year, Trump spent part of Thanksgiving at a Coast Guard station in South Florida.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who spent more than four decades in uniform in the U.S. Marine Corps, said the possibility of forces spending Thanksgiving on the border comes with the territory.
“We’re a 365-day-a-year military. Rain or shine, light or dark, cold weather or hot weather — we have an all-weather force that’s on duty 24/7,” Mattis said during a recent trip to Texas. “Drive around the Pentagon on Thanksgiving Day, and look at the number of cars in the parking lot of people who work right through the holidays.”