My first Thanksgiving after I left home was when I was going through my technical training down at NATTC (Naval Aviation Technical Training Center) Pensacola, Florida, and learning Oceanography and how sound travels through the water. We students would not be allowed to go on leave until Christmas break, so I was on my fifth month of being away from home and my family since I had left for boot camp back in June. I had concocted a plan to just go to the galley with a few friends and have a turkey dinner complete with that crazy ‘sweet potato pie’ that they made there. I had been eating it for weeks now thinking it was a weird pumpkin until someone politely corrected me. Coming from the North, I had no idea people made sweet potatoes into a pie. The idea was absurd.
When I awoke on Thanksgiving after the rare chance of sleeping in until 0800, I went down to the common areas to find that my LPO (Lead Petty Officer) of the performing units was setting up a table for our grand lunch. As the day went on, he and his wife and a few other friends had brought in home-cooked dishes of Turkey, stuffing, and the whole works. Our folded table stretched long down the hall and fit nearly 30 of us. That afternoon we sat and gave thanks for our first home-cooked meal in nearly half a year.
The next year, I went on my first overseas deployment to Iceland. I arrived there a week before Thanksgiving, and felt like I had landed on another planet. I knew not a soul, but was assigned to combat aircrew #9. A few days later, my crew and a few of their wives that had come to visit on the rock they called Iceland had made arrangements for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner complete with a folding table and paper plates. It was prepared in the Flight Operations room, so those of us that were on duty could enjoy a dinner and reflect on our gratitude. I had been so lonesome for my family, but that day I had the opportunity to get to know my new family. I was so impressed that the officers on my new crew included us enlisted guys in their celebrations. I quickly came to learn that they always would take care of us, ensuring our meals before their own.
As the years went on, and we were deployed or on duty on Thanksgiving or the holidays, this would continue as our new tradition. No matter where we were, someone would always put together make-shift meal at some folding table. Sometimes it would be me, mastering the art of a Ramen-Noodle Casserole, deli-sliced turkey, and canned cranberry jelly, or whatever I could come up with in the barracks. Really, it didn’t matter. And as a tradition, we would express our gratitude for all that we had in that moment and remember those less fortunate. We would all have those fleeting moments of sadness as we thought about what our family back home was doing that moment and the traditions we were missing. But then we would look around and remember that we weren’t alone. We had each other. And together we kept the watch.