Thanksgiving at Uday Hussein's House

For the troops at Patrol Base Murray, Thanksgiving dinner arrived in 16 green plastic shipping containers around two o'clock in the afternoon. The meal had made the 45-minute truck ride from forward operating base Falcon (moving during the middle of the day, when it's safest) to get here hot for the troops, who lined up quietly with their plastic plates and utensils before moving down the cafeteria-style serving line.

About 18 miles south of Baghdad, Murray, named after World War II Medal of Honor recipient Col. Charles P. Murray and home to around 300 soldiers from the army's 30th battalion, 2nd brigade, 3rd infantry division, is a lot rougher than most postings in Iraq. Only one hot meal is delivered from Falcon each day. There is nowhere to do laundry, and there is no running water except for the shower, which is always freezing cold. The base itself is built around what was once Uday Hussein's home, and its pool sits drained and dusty next to the tent where food is served. But some argue that it is these kinds of small-scale operations that have been critical to the surge's achievements. "If you want to enjoy the kind of success we've enjoyed so far, you have to live out here," says Maj. Eric Weis, the operations planner for the unit. "There's something about shared misery that eventually people take pride in."

The day before Thanksgiving, I took a walk at dusk with Capt. Eric Melloh, commander of the unit's alpha company, along what it known as Route Gnat, a dirt stretch that runs beside the Tigris river. The area is mostly farmland, full of pear, apple, lemon and date trees. American soldiers were stationed at every intersection (where they had been all day), and a few walked along side us to ensure we were protected. "The surge is all about not commuting from big bases," says Melloh. "We're in the town 24/7." Indeed, things seemed quiet, and the few families we passed along the way smiled at us shyly.

Most of the soldiers here got at least a brief break from the day's work Thursday (which involved the discovery of two large weapons caches) to celebrate the holiday with a meal and phone calls home to parents, spouses and children. One of the poolside tents hosted Protestant and Catholic services in the early evening and showed NFL games between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions and then the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets on a 21-inch television as the night rolled on. For 23-year-old Lt. Calvin Grubbs III, the day reminded him how much he missed home; it's the first Thanksgiving he has ever spent away from his family. Back in Columbia, S.C., the night before the holiday, he usually stays up late with his mother and two brothers peeling potatoes for mashed potatoes and grating cheese for baked macaroni and cheese. "My mom likes to get all the cooking done the night before," says Grubbs. It makes sense--they usually have as many as 20 family members for dinner. This year, Grubbs, a medical platoon leader, spent most of the day administering anthrax and influenza vaccines to troops at the base's aid station.

But Grubbs, along with the rest of the soldiers on base, showed their appreciation for the hot dinner by serving themselves generous portions of sliced turkey, ham, gravy-soaked mashed potatoes and "dirty" rice. Most took a slice each of the sweet potato, pecan and pumpkin pies. "These solders out here are my family now," says Capt. John Whitehead. "I'm just glad I got to spend it with the ones who are here."

On Wednesday night, there had been a rumor going around that the Washington Redskins cheerleaders might have been planning a visit for the holiday, and some of the soldiers wondered out loud whether they could all fit into two Black Hawk helicopters, which the base's landing zone could most easily accommodate. Now the word is they might come next Tuesday. Or, they might be visiting Patrol Base Hawks, about two miles southwest of Murray, instead. "I'll be very pissed off if they go to Hawks," says Sgt. David Torino, "because Hawks has hot water."