American troops celebrate final Fourth of July holiday at Afghanistan base

KHOST, Afghanistan — There were no fireworks or barbecues to celebrate what will likely be the final Fourth of July weekend for U.S. troops stationed here at Forward Operating Base Salerno. 

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But for troops who have served multiple rotations in Afghanistan, as well as soldiers on their first deployment, celebrating July 4 in a war zone "means something more" than the traditional celebrations stateside, Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Grinston with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) told The Hill. 

"I do what I do ... so [when] I get home, I can go to a barbecue" and not worry about attacks like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing, Grinston said during the unit's holiday celebrations here. 

That additional responsibility means having to celebrate July Fourth a day later than Americans back home, to avoid possible attacks against the base during the actual holiday. 

It also means missing more July Fourth weekends, Christmases and Thanksgivings than Grinston can remember over the course of the 12-year war. 

"I am okay with that ... this is what we have been asked to do," Grinston said. 

But for many of the younger soldiers here, some on their first tour in Afghanistan, the idea of spending July Fourth in a war zone "has not really sunk in yet," Maj. Mark Morgan, the unit's chaplain, said Friday. 

In some ways, "a holiday over here is just another day," Morgan said. 

Located near the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border, 16- to 18-hour days are the norm for the soldiers stationed at Forward Operating Base Salerno. 

The realization of spending the holidays in a place like Afghanistan can be overwhelming for some troops here and elsewhere in the country, Morgan said. 

Staff Sgt. Larry Sanders, who works the unit's air traffic control operations, has missed two July 4th weekends, Christmases and Thanksgivings while on deployments in Afghanistan. 

"You miss times like that ... that's time you can't get back," Sanders told The Hill. 

But during days like July 4, "family is just as important to the fight" in terms of support coming from loved ones back home, he explained. 

"And they understand that," according to Sanders. 

That said, being able to "blow off some steam" and take a break, however short, from the war during the holiday is invaluable, he added. 

From the July Fourth volleyball and basketball tournaments on base to the red, white and blue paper decorations plastered inside the dining hall, soldiers — for at least one day — can "unwind for a few minutes," Sanders said. 

"It helps them to cope," he said. "Everyone has got to unplug [sometimes]."

Along with the festivities, soldiers on base were allowed to shed their combat uniforms in favor of shorts and T-shirts for the day, to "kinda remember what you used to do stateside," Col. Val Keaveny Jr. told unit members on Friday.

Soldiers with the brigade combat team were not just a military unit, but more like a family. And on days like July 4, or July 5 here, "families stick together," Keaveny said.

Public shows of support, like Wednesday's visit by lawmakers to U.S. forces in country, and small gestures like care packages by complete strangers, also provide a little relief in what can be an uncompromising environment, according to Morgan. 

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) met with soldiers stationed at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command in Kabul during an unannounced visit to the country Thursday 

Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) also posted photos of meetings with U.S. service members in Afghanistan.

Those efforts serve as subtle reminders to American citizens that even after more than a decade of war, U.S. front line forces aren't nameless, faceless troops fighting halfway around the world, according to Morgan. 

"They are our sons; they are our daughters; they are our husbands and wives," he said.