Thanksgiving meals will be minus the main dish for many U.S. Embassy staff

By Franklin Fisher, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Every year before Thanksgiving, U.S. Embassy staff in Mongolia do something few Americans have to do.

They check whether any military flights will be leaving bases with Defense Department commissaries and heading for Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar. The aim: To avoid a Thanksgiving with no affordable holiday bird, or one that’s cold turkey — no bird at all.
After all, in a country where the traditional national holiday dish is sheep, turkeys are pretty hard to come by.

“Every year we try to get turkeys because to go through a company here in Mongolia it’ll cost a hundred dollars per turkey,” said Marissa Maurer, embassy public affairs officer.

“Also it’s hard to guarantee quality. You’re more likely to have good products from a U.S. commissary.”

Getting the commissary birds is no easy task, but this year things looked good ... at first.

There would indeed be a plane due in Mongolia after a stop at Osan Air Base in South Korea. So embassy community liaison officer Mike Vining gathered people’s orders and money, and arranged with the Osan commissary to have the order flown out.

For her family of four, Maurer ordered three turkeys and two hams. Total cost: $100.

But then things began going awry.

The plane would not be at Osan after all. It’d fly from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

So Vining checked with the Kadena commissary, which accepted the order for $2,500 worth of frozen turkeys and hams, paid by credit card.

To shepherd the order from the commissary on Okinawa to the embassy in Mongolia, the embassy sent Army Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Muravez, 33, who is assigned to the embassy’s Defense Attaché office.

Muravez used his wits to scrape up a truck to get the food to the flight line, and to persuade the cargo manager to load the perishables sooner than later.

With 1,500 pounds of food safely aboard the yawning interior of an Air Force C-17 transport, a relieved Muravez took his seat.

Then the plane sat there.

And sat there.

After a time, one of the pilots asked him if he wanted to go ahead and take the turkeys off the plane.

“And I said … ‘Why would I want to do that?’ ”

Because, the pilot told him, the flight was scrubbed due to bad weather in Mongolia.

“So we had Sgt. 1st Class Muravez canceled on the tarmac with the pallet and a half of turkeys, trying to do the whole process in reverse before the turkeys would thaw and so he could get their money back to the embassy staff,” said Army Lt. Col. Lisa Vining, the embassy’s assistant military attaché and wife of Mike Vining.

The sergeant then began scrounging for a truck. Someone from base services came to the rescue, and they drove the load back to the commissary.

The commissary manager agreed to a full refund and Muravez eventually made his way back to Ulaanbaatar.

“They were very, very grateful that we got our money back,” he said of the embassy staff.

But they were still without Thanksgiving turkeys.

In the end, they found two small farms that had a few turkeys at very high prices. They bought six, Vining said.

Five were already butchered, weighed about 7.5 pounds, and cost $98 each.

But the other they had to buy live.

It cost $130 and will probably be about 13 pounds cooked, Vining said. The farmer packed the live one in his small car and drove it to the embassy.

Maurer decided that at those prices her family wouldn’t be buying one.

She said they’ll be having lasagna instead.


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