Thousands of American troops spent Thanksgiving deployed to the U.S. border with Mexico, joining fellow service members overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere who marked the holiday away from loved ones – a familiar fact of life for those who serve.
At Camp Donna, the military's temporary border base in southern Texas, video released by the Defense Department showed soldiers in chow hall tents carving turkeys and piling holiday meals onto plastic trays under overcast skies. Some troops along the border recorded video messages for their families back home – the kind of greetings typically sent from overseas.
The Pentagon shipped out more than 300,000 pounds of traditional Thanksgiving food, including 9,738 whole turkeys, to those stationed and deployed around the globe. A total of 799 pounds of turkey went to troops serving on the border in southern Texas.
Like many of the Pentagon's initiatives, the Thanksgiving rollout was an affair of giant scale: 51,234 pounds of roasted turkey, 16,284 pounds of sweet potatoes, 81,360 pies, 19,284 cakes and 7,836 gallons of eggnog. Forces around the world received the goods through the vast military supply chain that keeps those serving in combat equipped with medicine, food and more.
"Many of America's military men and women are away from home this Thanksgiving, making sacrifices to secure our freedom and to protect our southern border," Army Brig. Gen. Mark Simerly, the commander of troop support for the Defense Logistics Agency, said in a statement. He said the military was providing them "the very best Thanksgiving meal our country has to offer."
A spokeswoman for U.S. Army North, which oversees the Army's part of the deployment, said that Thursday would be a "light-duty day" for troops deployed along the border, meaning they would be asked to do little, if any, work. No troops had been sent home to their regular duty stations or moved among the border mission sites, she said.
Many bases host traditional Thanksgiving meals in their dining halls. Those deployed farther afield often find more-creative ways to celebrate, whether that means frying a turkey on a combat outpost in Afghanistan or eating Thanksgiving dinner on a submarine.
Often a select few get treated to meals with senior leaders, who typically visit the troops on Thanksgiving and Christmas as a show of thanks for their sacrifice. President George W. Bush famously flew into Iraq under the cover of night to mark Thanksgiving with the troops in 2003, months after the invasion.
The tradition of making sure that forces deployed over the Thanksgiving holiday receive their turkey dates back decades. The Pentagon supplied turkey and cranberry sauce to troops serving overseas during World War II. The tradition followed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the troops deployed to the border in Texas marked Thanksgiving in place, with the turkey sent over by the Pentagon. Others deployed to California and Arizona will go to military bases near their border outposts to celebrate the holiday, according to a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving festivities among deployed troops have been as uncontroversial as military events come, with the Pentagon widely publicizing sacrifices that those in uniform make while serving the country over the holidays.
But questions about the deployment of roughly 5,800 troops to the border with Mexico have made the Thanksgiving celebrations there something of a political football.
Critics have accused President Donald Trump of using the military for a political stunt, deploying forces to the border to rally his base before this month's midterm elections. He has been focused on Central American migrants moving through Mexico with hopes of seeking asylum in the United States, suggesting the caravans of people – many of them destitute families fleeing violence and financial hardship – pose a security threat. Trump's critics have said the fact that these troops will miss Thanksgiving with their families is an insult.
"Our troops and their families deserve better than to be used as props, @realDonaldTrump," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a tweet this week. "Let them go home."
Trump, who spent the Thanksgiving holiday at his Mar-a-Lago estate, dismissed the criticism, saying those serving on the border were proud to be representing the United States there and deterring "tough people" from coming into the country.
Trump also told reporters Thursday he had "given the OK" for U.S. troops to respond with lethal force to anyone crossing the border who presents a threat. U.S. laws generally prohibit military personnel from carrying out domestic law enforcement tasks, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had already indicated an aversion to changing that.
Trump held a televised phone call with military personnel Thursday amid criticism that he has not visited troops in a war zone, a custom of his predecessors in office. When asked whether he would travel to visit deployed service members, Trump said he would "do some interesting things at the appropriate time." The president offered no further explanation for those remarks.
As he did last year, Trump spent part of Thanksgiving at a Coast Guard station in South Florida, shaking hands and posing for photos.
Mattis, who spent more than four decades in uniform in the Marine Corps, said the possibility of forces spending Thanksgiving on the border comes with the territory.