Gary Porter had expected to spend Thanksgiving at home until his Army Reserve unit was activated two weeks ago. Now he had to work up the nerve to call home to Ohio and talk with his family again, repeating the wrenching farewells they had exchanged when he left home last week.
"It's kind of hard to get the courage up again to call home," he said, "hear those voices again."
He was missing a family Thanksgiving and, in a few days, the first anniversary of his engagement to be married. "It stinks," he said.
Porter was one of about 350 reservists and National Guard members who ate Thanksgiving dinner yesterday at a mess hall at Fort Meade.
His unit, based in Zanesville, Ohio, was one of four military police units that arrived last weekend for training before deployment to Saudi Arabia. The others included reserves from New Haven, Conn., and two Maryland National Guard units, one from Towson and one from Salisbury. All four units have merged into one, the 400th Military Police.
Most of the Maryland soldiers ate dinner with their families off base. And many in the Connecticut unit also feasted off base with families who had arrived earlier in the day in a convoy of five buses.
That left the Zanesville unit, and a few other soldiers with nowhere else to go, to pass their holiday at a handsome buffet of turkey, beef sirloin, baked ham, candied yams and more in the cavernous mess hall at the Fort Meade non-commissioned officers' club.
They were a quiet group.
"Today it's just a turkey dinner," said Jason Fontella, who had celebrated an early Thanksgiving dinner two weeks ago with his family in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich.
Fontella called home yesterday after his family finished eating another one. "They were kicking back on the couch, trying to get rid of the bloated feeling, getting ready to watch some football," he said. Later, they would sing Christmas carols, "off-key and out tune," and exchange Christmas lists, he added.
Fontella and several comrades were preparing to board buses for a nighttime tour of Washington. Others were planning on a quiet night of doing laundry -- a rare block of free time in a training regimen that gets them up at 5 a.m. and runs them until 10 p.m.
Some of the soldiers had heard that life in Saudi Arabia won't be much more exciting, that it consists of more training and of passing the rest of the time organizing desert beetles to race and scorpions to fight.
But Col. Thomas R. Mann, the Fort Meade garrison commander, who passed through the mess hall in dress blue uniform, exhorted them in informal conversation to "make every minute count." They will have much to train for, many prisoners of war to guard in the event of war, he said.
If conflict were to come, said a soldier who would give only her first name as Tracey, she believed it would be of dubious value. Tracey, a student of environmental health at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, said she believed the massive deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia was purposely "overdone so the military can get more budget money."
Although she said she would be "the first to jump up and go for a good cause," the continued presence of Arab students at her college has made her cynical about her own deployment. Arab students at Wright State are "still taking classes and everything, while we're getting pulled out of classes to go fight for them," she said.
Across the table, Mike Bebo, a business student at Wright State, said he suspected that the deployment was for "oil and big business," but he felt sorry for the Kuwaitis living under Iraqi occupation of their homeland. Bebo said he would fight for the Kuwaitis.
He thought of his deployment as his side of the bargain with the Army. "I got what I wanted out of the Army," which was money toward his education he said. "I got quite a lot of money."
Still others, such as Matthew Brown, an installer of security systems in Springfield, Ohio, saw themselves as serving a vital cause, putting a stop to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. "I look at it more as the United States attempting to stop somebody who could really jeopardize the world and world peace," he said. "I think [President] Bush is handling it real well."
Next to him, Pam Burrell said, "Yeah, it's necessary." But thoughts of home crowded out doubt or fervor about her duty.
She had left behind a husband who is a drill instructor at Fort Dix in New Jersey and two boys, ages 5 and 7, with her mother in Dayton, Ohio. "Bummer, huh?" she said.
The children have yet to grasp that she will be away a long time. Her telephone conversation with them earlier in the day was "teary," she said, but "it made me feel better when I got off the phone."