Posted by: Zoa | November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Afghanistan

Thanksgiving diorama in the chow hall

At breakfast in the chow hall on Thanksgiving morning, I was greeted by the seasonal display shown above.  This diorama was constructed out of recycled materials by our cooking staff.  The figurines were ingeniously carved from blocks of Styrofoam used to ship our meats and vegetables from New Jersey.  The other materials were surplus military supplies.

Although the oversized horse (in the rear) — with its harsh eyes and raised mane — looked a bit threatening, and the mannequins had a zombie-like quality, I thought it was a pretty good effort, all in all.  It’s not easy to translate cultural icons and traditions from one side of our planet to the other.  I had a chance to meet one of the artists (a real Indian from Mumbai!) and tell him what a wonderful job he and his fellow sous-chefs did.

Thanksgiving table displays

Our Thanksgiving dinner itself was the real deal, with dozens of huge turkeys, various types of stuffing (including some that were flavored with Afghan spices), cranberry sauce, yams and pumpkin pie for desert.  Again, the cooking staff went all out with their fruit carvings and table displays as shown above.

Note that every soldier here is required to carry a loaded weapon at all times because it’s part of their uniform.  On the walls of the mess hall hangs a sign saying “WEAPONS ON YOUR LAP.”

I had hoped that our dinner would be served by a notable celebrity from Washington DC, such as Hillary or Joe.  It would also have been exciting to have seen someone like Tom Hanks carving up our big bird.  Instead, an Army general (with one star) flew in from Germany to take a shift with the carving knife serving his troops for about an hour.  He was later replaced by a Saddam Hussein lookalike … complete with chef’s hat, white jacket, full beard and beard net.  This added a nice touch to the event.

Enlisted housing

Several folks have emailed questions about what a FOB in Afghanistan looks like. So I took a few of photos, where permitted.  Shown above are insulated tents used for the enlisted troops.

I’m the only professor here, so I have VIP status.  I’m housed in one of the Russian-built structures near headquarters.  Still, I’m subject to all the safety drills and procedures of the soldiers.  One morning I was awakened at dawn by a commanding male voice on the public address system saying “DO NOT EVACUATE THE BUILDING.  THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM.”  It’s good to know that the Army is taking such good care of me.

Our safety precautions are impressive.  Every building is surrounded by high berms of dirt and rocks.  Windows — where they exist — are filled with sand bags.  No one goes out at night without wearing a reflective sash and being accompanied by a “battle buddy”.  The speed limit for all vehicles is 15 mph.  Eye protection is required at all times.  The fact that there is no alcohol here is also a factor in creating a calm and businesslike atmosphere on this FOB.

One of our fitness gyms

Fitness is big here.  This FOB has at least three fitness tents like the one above.  Here you’ll find a wide variety of weights, floor mats, punching bags, jogging machines, stationary bicycles, stairmasters and ellipticals.  There are big TVs above the exercise areas where we can watch endlessly rebroadcast professional sports.  The fact that the gym is housed inside an open air tent makes for a very comfortable place to work out.  And of course, there’s no membership fee.  It’s all free.

Besides eating and exercising, the 3rd most popular activity here is sleeping.  It’s been explained to me that, by sleeping 12 hours a day, a soldier can cut his/her 14 month deployment to 7.

MRAPs ready to roll

Here are the typical vehicles seen driving around the base.  They’re called MRAPs, which stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.  I had hoped that we would be driving in one of these for our geology field trip.  Instead, we traveled in Toyota SUVs.

Geology field trip

For security reasons, I’m not allowed to go “outside the wire”.  So, last Friday, I took my geology class took on a field trip to a quarry that’s inside the wire. FOB Sharana contains a small canyon where material for filling sandbags and Hescos is quarried.  So, my GEOL 110 students had an applied learning experience involving about 10,000 years of strata, which included ancient sand dunes overlaid by glacial outwash from the last ice age.  Bashing around in the glacial till with sledge hammers was good fun.  We found some nice chunks of jasper — almost gem quality.

One last note:  There’s a newspaper here that everyone reads called Stars & Stripes.  It’s the standard news source on all US installations worldwide.  Last week, there was an astute article about cooperation between Americans and Afghans which quoted Lawrence of Arabia and his 27 Articles of T.E.Lawrence dated 1917, saying …

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands.  Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.  It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.  Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

From what I’ve seen so far, this seems like rather good advice.



  1. I hope that you are well, Nick! Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience in Afghanistan with me. It is a treasure reading about. You are still in my prayers.
    Happy travels and belated Merry Christmas!

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