Even war and COVID fail to dampen U.S. troops' Thanksgiving spirit

Northern Iraq — For many U.S. service members deployed in the Middle East, there'll be no festive Thanksgiving lunch on Thursday. Instead, they're practicing strict social distancing, and stuck with take-out meals.

More than 100 American service members have been infected with COVID-19 at one base in northern Iraq alone, but U.S. Army Specialist Sheriff Tijaniabimbola told CBS News foreign correspondent Holly Williams that there's still plenty to feel thankful for.

"I love the uniform. I love the respect. I love when they call you 'yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.' I love when people just respect you," said Tijaniabimbola, a mechanic who services Apache attack helicopters.

TJ, as he's known, came to the U.S. from Nigeria four years ago and then enlisted. He told CBS News he plans to become a U.S. citizen when this tour of duty is over.

"I'm feeling grateful that I'm on a path to make a better life for my family, to make a better future for my child," he said. 

The base's chief medical officer is Commander Chris Call, an anesthesiologist from Walter Reed Medical Center. He came to Iraq expecting to treat combat injuries, but instead he's been setting up quarantine wards.  

"COVID has really united us as a humanity on this base, as opposed to all of our individual units. It's really, in a lot of ways, brought us together in a way that I never could have imagined," Call said.

Across the border in Syria, Specialist Jessie Shatalov, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is in charge of making sure there's running water for the troops at a small camp in the desert.

She was inspired to join the military by her grandfather, who served in Vietnam. 

She had a simple message for her 4-year-old son Viktor, who she hasn't seen in five months: "I love you. I miss you. Mom will be home soon. That's it!" 

Out on patrol in Syrian towns and villages, Sergeant William Mills, a paratrooper with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division who hails from Maryland, said at a time when he's missing his family, he's grateful for happy moments with local children.

"It kind of takes your mind elsewhere, you kind of forget the situation you're in – it's nice to just relax and hangout," Mills said.

Being thousands of miles from home in the midst of a pandemic has given some of those serving abroad a new perspective on what it means to be thankful.

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