IRBIL, Iraq -- U.S. servicemembers celebrating the holidays at the Combined Joint Operations Center here were treated to a special meal Sunday.
Despite bad weather and power difficulties causing headaches for organizers, they were also anticipating a special USO party. And Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was slated to visit with a USO troupe traveling up from Baghdad.
The USO troupe includes country music artist Kellie Pickler and her husband, Kyle Jacobs, both on their 11th USO trip; chef Robert Irvine and his wife, professional wrestler Gail Kim; and comedian Jeff Ross.
The visit is a way to show support for the nearly 5,000 U.S. troops in the country supporting the Iraqi army-led campaign against the Islamic State at a time when many would prefer to be home with their families.
For one table full of soldiers, it's their first deployment away from families. But they've found a new clan within the 39th Brigade Engineer Battalion, part of the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
"It kind of became family away from family," said Sgt. Dhane Dingle of New York, N.Y. "It kind of filled that void for me."
She got to see her husband, a soldier deployed to a base a few dozen miles away, on Christmas Eve. Together, they have a "tribe" of children back home they're missing. "I didn't cry today, at least," she said.
"I didn't (cry) either," said Private 1st Class Neesy Sanders of Columbus, Miss., seated to her right. She was away from her own tribe of six siblings and her parents.
U.S. forces and their allies have been supporting, advising and "accompanying" Iraqi forces -- which include Kurdish peshmerga -- in their counter-Islamic State campaign. The Iraqi-led forces have pushed the militants from Beiji, Fallujah and Ramadi and for more than two months have been fighting to force them from Mosul, the second largest city and the Islamic State's last major urban stronghold in the country.
Reuters news agency has reported that U.S. troops have been embedding in those formations to a degree they never had before.
Sgt. Brooke Dent of Tampa, Fla., said she left her three children in the care of her husband, a soldier with 5th Special Forces group, while she deployed for the first time in her eight year career.
"He's back home with the kids for the first time," she said. "It's his turn."
Spec. Kwame Osei, a native of Ghana who now lived in Maryland, was missing his wife and newborn daughter.
"I wish I could spend Christmas with her, her first," he said.
At a table nearby, Army veteran Rodney Foster was finishing his Christmas meal, about the 10th he's had in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past 14 years. A contractor who has set up satellite communications centers throughout Iraq, he said he also spent one Christmas deployed as a soldier with the 101st Airborne searching for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. But it was much different then -- now he can Skype with his wife back in Grove, Okla.