The Heartbreaking Reason I Almost Boycotted Thanksgiving

This season, I can find pumpkin-spice-flavored anything almost everywhere I look. Maybe I'm only noticing this now because I recently moved back to the U.S. after living overseas. Pumpkin-spice Oreos — really? Yet I have to admit: That pumpkin-spice smell can bring me great comfort. My mother always baked around Thanksgiving, and for as long as I can remember, her homemade pumpkin pie was a symbol of reuniting our family for the holiday. On my first Thanksgiving while deployed as a U.S. Navy Officer, that scent brought me a surprising sense of belonging.
Designed by Tristan Offit.
It was exactly 10 years ago that I embarked on my first overseas deployment in the U.S. Navy — a stint at sea that would last more than seven months. I was assigned as a division officer aboard the USS TARAWA (LHA-1), a large-deck amphibious transport ship that looks like a miniature aircraft carrier. We sailed from San Diego on July 16, 2005, with a few hundred sailors and marines standing shoulder-to-shoulder across the deck of the ship. Family members, friends, and fellow sailors stood on the pier, waving us off as we departed for what was scheduled to be a six-month Western Pacific deployment. Events halfway across the world would keep us at sea for a bit longer than expected, but for those first few months, I looked to the open ocean as my new adventure.
Photo Courtesy of: Sarah Kopach/US Navy.
USS Tarawa (LHA-1) departing from her home port, San Diego, on July 16, 2005. The ship returned to San Diego on February 20, 2006.
There is little time or space for frivolity on board a warship. It was easy to fall into a pattern. Some military members compare it to Groundhog Day — reliving the same 24 hours over and over and trying to make the best of it. I learned to get by with very little and to appreciate even the smallest of comforts. I remember the day I discovered that Sephora shipped to military overseas addresses. I have to confess that my steady supply of Korres coriander body water brought me great joy each morning. Its subtle fragrance was just enough to overpower the smell of jet fuel and exhaust that seemed to permanently infect my clothes. We had several long stretches at sea — at one point, 110 days without a port call. At times, it was hard not to feel like a castaway. The monotony was sometimes unbearable, and I tried to find variation in my pattern of life: new gym routines, new books, new work projects. My best friend on the ship had been deployed several times and warned me that the holidays would be hard to endure.
Photo Courtesy of: Sarah Kopach.
Sailing through the Suez Canal on board the USS TARAWA (LHA-1).
But on the morning of November 24, 2005, I opened my eyes from the steely coldness of my stateroom and smelled the distinct scent of pumpkin pie, just like on Thanksgiving at home. Just a few doors down from my room, the Navy Culinary Specialists were beginning their preparations for Thanksgiving dinner for 1000. I stayed in bed for a few extra minutes and closed my eyes. I imagined that, instead of the cooks clad in their navy-blue uniforms, it was my mother who had rolled the thin layers of pie dough and stretched it across the pan, while the pumpkin filling settled in a mixing bowl nearby. As I stepped down my bunk ladder, I dreamed my foot would hit the plush, carpeted floor of my childhood room. I imagined tiptoeing down the long hallway to find my grandfather sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper, and my grandmother stuffing the turkey. I imagined my brother was there, too, long before drug addiction took over his life.

Instead of baking pies back home, my mother was enduring painful chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Instead of watching cartoons, my brother was looking for his next high.

Then the strong smell of jet fuel brought me back to where I really was — on a steel warship, sailing through the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from home. Instead of baking pies back home, my mother was enduring painful chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Instead of watching cartoons, my brother was looking for his next high. Instead of giving me a wink from across the kitchen table, my grandfather was resting peacefully in his grave. I felt heavy with despair, anxiety, and weakness. So heavy, my feet seemed to fuse to the floor like all the bolted-down furniture in my room. I had to get on with my day, and I worked for several hours through the morning and afternoon. In my mind, I was somewhere between home and the briny water on the horizon. I knew that even if I were at home, those facts about my family members wouldn't change. I was honored to serve my country, and I could not imagine doing anything else at this point in my career. I suppose I was just longing for a way to feel at home.

When it was finally time for Thanksgiving dinner, I considered just escaping to my room and skipping the meal altogether.

When it was finally time for Thanksgiving dinner, I considered escaping to my room and skipping the meal altogether. How could this compare to home? But then I caught a glimpse of the wardroom where the meal was being served. I stepped inside and saw the tacky paper turkeys and fall leaves speckled across the tables. Orange, red, and yellow streamers curled around food trays and hung carelessly to the floor. It was beautiful. My fellow officers, my friends, waved for me to sit. I felt so much warmth and kindness in that moment that it really did feel like being at home and part of a family.
Photo Courtesy of: Sarah Kopach.
A re-enlistment ceremony for three sailors in my division.
We would spend three more months at sea before the USS TARAWA returned to port in San Diego. There were more holidays to get through — more missed weddings, birthdays, and funerals. I cannot say it got easier; I suppose I just got better at managing it.

My fellow sailors and marines were my lifeline on that first deployment, as well as the ones that followed.

This year, I am lucky enough to be home for Thanksgiving, with my family. I know I will not forget the warm memories of my childhood, but I am so thankful to also share holiday memories with the sailors and marines with whom I served over the years. They were my lifeline on that first deployment, as well the ones that followed. There are still so many service members who are deployed around the world and who are celebrating Thanksgiving away from their loved ones. When I take my first bite of pumpkin pie, I think of them.

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