A bittersweet Thanksgiving 6,500 miles apart

Perry Hall family keeping soldier son in mind

The family will gather at Bill and Rose Stevens' two-story home in Perry Hall early Thursday afternoon, just as they've done every Thanksgiving for 25 years.

Rose, a nurse, will do most of the cooking. Bill, a retired firefighter, will set up the buffet in the kitchen and the chairs around the dining-room table. More than 20 aunts and cousins, uncles and grandkids will fill their plates at three o'clock and stay as long as they like.

But this year, one family member will be 6,500 miles and many worlds away.

Marshall Stevens, Bill and Rose's youngest, will be having his Thanksgiving dinner in the desert Middle East, where he's helping the United States fight a war from which it is withdrawing after 13 years.

Stevens, 30, a captain in the Maryland Army National Guard, is company commander of the 1100th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group, or TASMG, based in Edgewood.

A father and husband-to-be, he's leading about 100 soldiers stationed in Kuwait and two airfields in Afghanistan, where they're working to keep U.S. aircraft in top fighting condition even as the drawdown unfolds.

Stevens, who divides his time between Kuwait and Afghanistan, is one of about 24,000 U.S. soldiers still deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, down from a peak of 100,000 in 2011.

President Barack Obama announced a plan this week to have all U.S. troops out of the country by 2016, and Stevens' unit could return as early as next April. But even that possibility offers scant comfort this time of year.

"We keep reminding ourselves he's serving our country and that he'll be coming home soon," says Renee Flores, Marshall's fiancee and mother of four girls.

Victoria, 12; Valeria, 9; Bella, 3; and Penny, 81/2, will be at the feast Thursday, Flores says, "but [Stevens' absence] is a big hole. Oh goodness, it's difficult."

Rose Stevens worries constantly about her son — "Anything can happen over there," she says — but on Thursday she'll be pouring her energies into a ritual she has perfected with time.

A few days ago, Rose got the turkey, a 25-pounder, at a Baltimore County farm. Since then, she has been working on the applesauce, cranberries and green-bean casserole.

On Thursday she'll stuff and roast the bird, then whip up her special mashed potatoes laced with onions, cheese and bacon bits.

"She puts love in the details, and that dish is a specialty," Flores says.

Marshall, the youngest of three siblings, loved it while growing up in this home. As a boy, his family says, he was crazy about card tricks, baseball and golf, and had a taste for the outdoors. He graduated from Calvert Hall in 2002.

He showed little interest in the military, Rose said, until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Stevens joined the Army, trained for the infantry and deployed to Iraq with the 1st Infantry Division in 2004

He joined the Guard after his three-year hitch, went to flight school and climbed the ranks. Four years ago he helped lead a mission in Harlingen, Texas, in support of the U.S. Border Patrol.

There, in a bar one night, he met a cheerful brunette who was out with her father. He was smitten with Flores, the single mother of two young girls.

He seemed like the strong, silent type, she says, but when Stevens later met Victoria and Valeria, his inner clown came out.

"He had this Jim Carrey thing going, and the girls loved it," Flores says. A blended family was taking shape.

She'd grown up eight miles from the Mexican border and took the time to show him around. His Spanish wasn't very good, and he never knew what to make of the tamales, menudo (cow intestines) and posoles (spicy soup) that Renee's grandmother Oralia served at Thanksgiving dinner. But the dozens of relatives who filled her tiny house reminded him of the Stevens family holidays.

When he was transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground last year, he and the girls moved to Perry Hall, where baby Penny was born. And as Renee navigated her own culture shocks — shoveling snow, driving the Beltway, living in a strange land — frequent dinners at Bill and Rose's made her feel right at home.

Flores even handled the kielbasa and cannoli Rose served at Thanksgiving last year.

"It was pretty new to me, but I'm a survivor," she says, and laughs.

She has to be. Earlier this week, President Obama switched a plan to have nearly all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year, announcing that he'll keep 9,800 there at least into 2015.

Stevens' one-year mission, the Maryland Guard's last scheduled deployment in Afghanistan, could stretch into next summer and beyond.

He flies often to the airfields in Bagram and Kandahar, where his soldiers are tending aircraft.

"Our soldiers are in harm's way just by being on those bases, and outside the wire, the hazards and threats haven't diminished," says Col. Charles S. Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland Guard. "When your forces are withdrawing, and you're minimizing your profile, that's always the most dangerous time."

Flores, a former emergency room nurse, tries not to think about that, and Marshall doesn't share many details. She spends the bulk of her time managing the girls and their many activities.

She also helps counsel military wives and, when she has a spare moment, works at planning her wedding to Stevens, currently scheduled for next August.

When he was fighting in Iraq 10 years ago, his family says, they were lucky to be able to connect with Stevens via the best technology of that time, webcams that sent grainy images. They're thankful it's easier now. Bill, Rose, and Marshall's sister Kelly and brother Brad text and trade instant messages with him and follow his Facebook page.

Stevens also stays up late almost daily to Skype with Renee and the girls, offering pep talks, tracking homework and keeping up with the news. Flores even sets the computer in front of the TV so he can watch Ravens games, and she loves to flash live images of Rose's home cooking so he can "experience everything but the tastes and smells."

He'll have a big turkey dinner of his own today, Army-style, but says it won't compare.

"Thanksgiving in Kuwait will be bittersweet," Stevens wrote in an email to the Sun."They'll serve the typical turkey and stuffing. They'll mix it up with shrimp cocktails and desserts galore,[but] there will not be any green bean casserole (my favorite).The sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes will not be the same."

He believes in the mission and his soldiers, Stevens said, and he views being away part of the price he must pay. Besides, he'll have the pleasure of Skyping with the whole family today, even getting a look at Rose's big spread.

The Stevenses only hope he'll be able to taste it next year.

"We call Marshall our American hero," Flores says. "We're proud of what he's doing. But he also belongs with us."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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