DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- For Pvt. Billy Murray, member of an anti-aircraft missile unit, Thanksgiving was the day for kitchen duty and thinking about a 4-month-old son he barely knows.
For Sgt. Cedric Clay, it was for stringing orange crepe paper from pillar to pillar in a dining room and laying out napkins decorated with turkeys in a doomed attempt to make the U.S. soldiers feel at home.
For Chief Warrant Officer Wesley Wolf, the person in charge of preparing meals for most of the 230,000 U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia, the day was for considering what he might do differently for meals at Christmas. Almost no one is willing to bet that by then everyone will have left.
For almost all U.S. soldiers here, this was a Thanksgiving spent in an unmistakably foreign place, a time to feel exceptionally far from home. "It's gotten harder," said Private Murray, washing pots and pans at a field kitchen where it took most of the night to prepare meals for nearly 300 men. "People with families, they know it's the time right now to be home."
President Bush told them yesterday to plan on an indefinite stay. In visits to units of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, the president used tough-sounding language to criticize President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and declared that U.S. forces would remain in the Persian Gulf region until Iraq abandoned its occupation of Kuwait.
If he had the chance, Private Murray said, he would ask the president about the schedules and dates.
"Nobody knows when he's going," another soldier interrupted with a glare. "The president isn't going to say. So it's a worthless question."
Mr. Bush's message was roughly the one everyone expected, but being braced did not make it easy to bear.
"I've just got to remind myself every once in a while I'm in Saudi Arabia," said a sergeant at the refrigerated warehouse where preparations for the Thanksgiving meals began more than a month ago. "I get off work, and I mean in the early morning, after 16, 18 hours working, and tell myself I can go home. Then I have to think what home is, and what I can do there. Swat flies or nothing."
A member of the Military Police, temporarily drafted into a kitchen and stripped down to a T-shirt stained with the filling for thousands of deviled eggs, said: "I'd ask Bush, are we going to war, or are we going to sit here?"
Sgt. Terry Lauderdale, after counting the 10 people probably at the family dinner table in Goodwater, Ala., said: "Everybody is looking at a year maximum, and hoping for six months. We're in a six-month frame-of-mind."
Sergeant Clay, after considering his pregnant wife at Fort Lewis, Wash., and his mother in Baltimore, said: "I would greet the president, say it's a pleasure to see him, and I'd ask him, 'When are we going home?' "
Soldiers and Marines say that foreign travel was supposed to mean Europe or the Philippines or Japan. Almost none of them said they expected travel to involve months in what is mostly desert and to have to make allowances for Islamic law.
At Sergeant Clay's kitchen, for example, the Moslem staff had to be consulted about the Army's desire to serve pork, a food Islam forbids. A warrant officer described Thanksgiving to the staff and won its approval for U.S. soldiers to take over an oven for cooking 300 pounds of ham.