Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Message from Afghanistan - From Aaron Self of the C.O.B.R.A. Team

As a follow-up to my earlier post on Thanksgiving, I wanted all of my readers to see the following email I received from Aaron Self (Cobra Two from my Iraq tour). He gave me permission to post it, but it is one of the most heart-felt messages I have received from a war zone. (Aaron is pictured above in a recent photo.)

I must tell you that Aaron is a proud Texan and dedicated American who is also one of the finest men I have ever known. He and his wife, Kristi (who is deployed to another war zone with the Army Reserve), exemplify everything I know about what makes American warriors do what they do for all of us.

Say a prayer for Aaron’s and Kristi's safety and for the safety of “Higg”, Chad Higginbotham (Cobra Three of the C.O.B.R.A. Team), who is serving with the U.S. Army not far from Aaron.

* * * *

Aaron Self
Kabul, Afghanistan
November 27, 2008

"I woke up this morning thinking that I would feel even further from home than usual. In the past few days, I had casually asked some of the local Afghan staff if they knew anything about the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Each time, I would have to explain, as no one had heard of it. In a few instances, I did my best to explain that a turkey was a bird, and it had nothing to do with the country Turkey. The best I could do was 'Big Chicken' followed by a 'gobble' noise. I still don't know if they nodded in recognition, or just to placate the crazy American.

I received a phone call from an old war buddy, affectionately known as 'Higg'. Higg was on my four-man team in Iraq in 2004. It is a small world, as he is also deployed in the area. Higg called to invite me to his base for a Thanksgiving. He went on about ham and velvet cake and cobbler. I could smell the food as he talked about it, and I imagined my belt feeling tight after a traditional feast. Part of me knew to not get too excited, as plans change in the blink of an eye.

Countless times, I have had to cancel travel plans due to attacks and intelligence reports of threats specifically against western ex-patriots and soldiers. The plan was to head down to his location with my boss in tow. My boss was especially excited because this was the first opportunity for him to get his hair cut in two months. That kind of thing is hard on a military man, even after he hangs up the uniform.

To my surprise, our cook, Javid, had somehow secured 5 turkeys! He asked me how to make mashed potatoes, and I was amazed that I actually remembered how. Javid's gesture was incredible, but I still did not let myself get too excited. What passes as American food here is not even close to the real thing. I once had a 'hamburger' made of SPAM, cucumbers, Tabasco and potato bread. The attempt of a local cook to cook a bird he had only just heard of....well, my taste buds were in a holding pattern.

Soon, the familiar smell of Thanksgiving filled the air. I went to the kitchen to find Javid smiling ear to ear. His friend was pushing boiled potatoes through a meat grinder, because there was no other way to mash them. A pot of green beans was on the stove top, and one of the turkeys was being pulled from the oven. Javid asked me to try the mashed potatoes, and I was excited to find that they tasted almost as good as Mom's (sorry Mom, you have to factor in that there is a sentimental element that effects the taste buds).

I called Higg and confirmed that Doug and I were going to meet him at the base at 2:00 PM. I was reminded of every holiday since I was 18, eating with Mom, then after, repeating the ritual with Dad. I guess the tradition would be continued between two new families. As I was walking down the stairs, I heard the rumbling 'boom' of an explosion. I hear them frequently, so it was nothing out of the ordinary.

Within five minutes, Bahir, a trusted Afghan friend, told me that there had just been a suicide attack at the U.S. Embassy. I went to the roof (better cellular reception) and called an Australian friend who lives close to the Embassy. He answered, and immediately said, 'This thing is still going on, I need to call you back.'

Lunch was served, and I was surprised how eagerly the locals devoured the food. Doug said a few words about the history and meaning of the day, and I followed by sharing what I was thankful for. I spoke of new friends, and freedom, and family that was safe at home (all but one). A young man, Ali, then stood up, and shared what he was thankful for; friends and a chance to be included in our holiday. The spirit of Thanksgiving took root, and without coaching or provocation, the locals took turns standing and sharing what made them grateful. It was just like I had done every Thanksgiving, and I felt a little closer to home.

I called my Aussie friend to see if there were any developments regarding the attack. I needed to know the conditions if I was going to venture into that area. The news was grim. A coalition convoy was hit and there was intel suggesting more would occur. What’s more, four soldiers were killed. I informed Doug and called Higg to break the news that I was not coming. I don't think Mom would like me taking such a risk for a piece of velvet cake.

I was disappointed at the thought of missing out on my plans to catch up with an old friend. And then I thought of the four soldiers and four empty chairs in four different homes. I thought of the time difference in the States, and how four families would get the news right about the time the turkey hit the table.

This is not one of those sappy patriotic emails that your republican friend forwards to you. I just wanted to share my feelings with those that matter to me. I am thankful for so many things, and it took being so far away from friends and family to truly feel that way.

Mom and Ernie: I picture myself there in Dallas, coming over way too early and long talks in the kitchen, weighing my options on how much Mississippi mud to eat, versus how much room to leave in my stomach for Amy's green bean casserole.

I see Amy, Courtney and Mom, trying not to giggle as I ask the traditional Thanksgiving/Christmas question, 'Do you know the best thing about eating corn?' For those that are not familiar, the answer is not appropriate for the table.

I picture Dad and I sneaking out to go shooting, or begging Mary Jo to stop messing around in the kitchen and let us share her company.

I have counted my blessings today, and I came up with a few that I can only enjoy at home on Thanksgiving. I am thankful for triptafan-induced comas and Dr. Pepper burps. I am thankful for the only day I can stand to watch sports on TV. I am thankful for Kristi squeezing my hand the second everyone says 'Amen'. I am grateful for that third piece of cake that no one saw me eat, the sound of my giggling nieces and nephews as Elisabeth asks Uncle Aaron to come play, and the smell of turkey on my fingers.

I am also thankful for Matt, Julie, Myriam, Pancho and Lefty for making me and Kristi a part of their family. I am grateful for my friends at Evans (teachers and students, alike) for your letters and concern. I am grateful for the largest family ever, from Austin, Dallas, Stillwater, Houston, Apache and Washington. In my travels over the years, I have never felt forgotten or left out, and I have felt your prayers cover me like a warm blanket. I am grateful to be married to the most resilient and wonderful woman in the world. Kristi, this is not our first Thanksgiving spent in different countries. I know George Bush is not there this time to serve you turkey, so I hope you don't feel let down.

I just want to tell my wife, family and friends 'Happy Thanksgiving', and I am thinking of all of you."


* * * *

Aaron, we are grateful for you, for Kristi, for Higg and for all of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are risking your lives for all of us. It is only because of your efforts that we can sit at home today in freedom and safety.

Be safe and know we are all here for you.

Charles M. Grist


  1. From Doug Besherse in Tennesse, posted with his permission:

    "Sgt Grist

    Thanks for taking the time to send this to me.

    Awesome to hear from you, I was thinking of all of you today.
    One of my traditions is to get up and going deer hunting, I can't think of a Thanksgiving day as an adult that I have not done that.
    It is something that I am thankful for because I live in a country that gives me the freedom to do so and also carry a high powered, scoped rifle to hunt with.

    One of the first meaningful things that happened in Baghdad was on the way back from BIAP on the rhino. LTC Gamble and I had just met and were setting side by side. He looked under his feet and there sat a Boonie hat a soldier had left behind. He picked it up and gave it to me as something to remember and to take home with me, which I did.

    When I returned home I went to the Army Surplus and bought a Boonie hat in tiger stripe. I bought it because I wanted something to remember and honor the troops while I was hunting. I have taken that hat hunting with me every time since, all the pictures I have taken with animals I have killed feature the hat. It has been with me in several different states as well.

    Every time I look at the hat, wear the hat, or touch it for that matter I remember my fellow Americans in foreign lands, both past and present, fighting and dying so that my family and I can have the freedoms we have.

    I put the hat on this morning well before daylight and walked in total darkness through the cold air. I was setting at the ready in the dark thinking about you all, where you were and how blessed I had been to have met you. I thought of all kinds of things of course but I thought of all the ones separated from their families today so that I would not have to be.

    I came back from the woods and checked my messages before the Thanksgiving Feast and low and behold your email was waiting on me, one the highlights of my day is being able to respond to the message.

    To you and to all of our warriors; thank you for sacrifice.

    Sincerely Doug Besherse

  2. This is a powerful message - thank you for sharing it with us.

    I am so thankful for Aaron and all of our troops. May God bless you all.

  3. Sgt. Grist,
    As I have told you before, you and Doc and Higg are very special to my family. The value of your friendship and concern for my son cannot be measured! Aaron called just a few minutes after the convoy attack to let us know that he was fine, just in case we heard it on the news and were worried. I'm sorry he didn't get to see Higg, but glad he followed his training to "hunker down" when he didn't have to expose himself. I credit you and LTC Eversman for a lot of that training. Keep the faith and your sanity! Aaron's Dad, Jim Self