BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- It's the Fourth of July again, and for the 11th year in a row, U.S. troops are finding a way to celebrate the holiday in Afghanistan.
In the mountainous provinces of the coalition's Regional Command-East, roughly 20,000 Soldiers are thousands of miles from the care-free rituals of Independence Day. Here there are neither cook-outs nor parades. But there is the day itself, and it's the little things that, at least for a moment, bring these Soldiers closer to home
Brig. Gen. Paul Funk II, the 1st Infantry Division's deputy commanding general for maneuver and a seasoned veteran of deployed holidays, knows this well.
So the general, trailed by an Army Black Hawk helicopter carrying more than 150 deep-dish pizzas provided by the non-profit organization Pizzas 4 Patriots, hit the road to bring Independence Day to the troops.
But it's neither the pizzas nor the general that make this story, said Funk. It's about the Soldiers on the ground.
"These [Soldiers] represent what is best about our country; they're on the forward edge of freedom," said Funk. "They are fighting to bring freedom to a country that has known nothing but strife and chaos for years."
Spc. Corey Crowe and Pfc. Anthony Willis, both infantry mortarmen with the Fort Riley, Kan., based 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, are on their first tour to Afghanistan.
Willis, a 21-year-old native of Waynesboro, Va., said this is the first time he's spent the Fourth away from home. For the Willis family, the holiday usually involves an old fashioned cook-out and a generous amount of fireworks.
And while he won't be in town for the festivities this year, Willis said he is still proud to celebrate the holiday.
"It's a real honor," he said. "How many people, for hundreds of years, have fought for our country's independence? Now I'm one of them."
Crowe, also 21 years old, is a native of Gadsden, Ala. Like Willis, he misses home most on the holidays. But thanks to Funk, the first general officer the young Soldier has met, Crowe has what he calls "a little something to appreciate."
"Anything we get here is a God-send," said Crowe. "I really appreciate it."
When he doesn't have pizza to brighten his day, Crowe said he keeps his head up by staying focused on his unit's task here.
"We have a good mission here and a good partnership with the [Afghan National Security Forces,]" he said. "Everyday we're pushing back against the enemy, trying to make it safer so the people here can enjoy their lives."
Crowe, Willis, and the rest of Bandit Troop are stationed at Combat Operating Post Sar Howza in Afghanistan's Paktika Province. The unit's tour began just two months ago, and the Fourth of July is one of the first holidays they have spent here. In nearby Wardak Province, however, Soldiers with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, known here as Task Force Bulldog, are wrapping up the ninth month of their tour.
Capt. David Lawburgh commands a company of Bulldog Soldiers at a small outpost near the Chak District Center. With nine months crossed off their calendars, today is only one of many on a long list of holidays Lawburgh's Soldiers have spent away from home.
"The boys definitely enjoyed the pizza," he said. "Anything different for a change is nice, especially on a day like today."
These Bulldog Soldiers, like many U.S. servicemembers across Afghanistan, will soon be spending their holidays at home. Their rest will be well earned, said Lawburgh.
"We have a good amount of success to look back on," he said. "All the agencies here, the Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army and the National Directorate of Security, work together pretty seamlessly and it shows out in the field to the local populace."
In the meantime, American troops here will continue to find the little things, today in the form of delivered pizza, that make them feel closer to home.