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NEWS | June 19, 2016

The Mission Starts Here: Cooks, Kitchen Helpers Fueling the Forces that Fight

By Spc. Daisy Zimmer 367th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif., June 18, 2016 – The stars are still bright in the clear, dark California sky. Most U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers at Fort Hunter Liggett have only been asleep for a few hours, but the Soldiers who are Culinary and Nutrition Care Specialists at Tactical Assembly Area (TAA) Schoonover are already hard at work preparing the breakfast that will fuel everyone for another day of Combat Support Training Exercise (CSTX) 91-16-02.

As the largest U.S. Army Reserve training exercise, CSTX 91-16-02 provides Soldiers with unique opportunities to sharpen their technical and tactical skills in combat-like conditions. In any environment, one of the basic necessities for the Soldiers' success during training is eating three meals per day.  

“Feeding the Soldiers is very important,” said Spc. Joseph Kim, Nutrition Care Specialist, 349th Medical Detachment, Los Angeles, California. “Without food, we can't function. It's our job to make sure the Soldiers are eating a healthy diet.” 

After 10 weeks of Basic Combat Training, Culinary Specialists receive nine weeks of advanced training in food preparation and learn how to execute Army recipes. Nutrition Care Specialists train for seven weeks to learn food safety and sanitation practices, as well as how to plan a menu that is healthy and well-rounded to sustain Soldiers in training and combat environments.  

Soldiers are served a hot, nutritious meal from the dining tent for breakfast and dinner. Their lunches are Meals Ready-to-Eat (MRE), which include an entree, side dishes, snacks and a water-activated heater, that Soldiers are able to take to their various training locations across Fort Hunter Liggett and eat whenever time allows. 

The team providing meals at TAA Schoonover report to the kitchen promptly at 3:00 a.m. and work a 20 hour shift to ensure the Soldiers are nourished and energized to conduct their rigorous training exercises.  

“Our schedule is simple: one day on, one day off,” said Staff Sgt. Bernice Tesei, a native of Agana, Guam and noncommissioned officer-in-charge, 302nd Quartermaster Company, Barrigada, Guam. “We have about 20 Soldiers from various units on our team. There are 10 cooks and kitchen helpers working on any one given day.”  

This work-rest cycle ensures the Soldiers have ample time to relax and reset before assuming their duties again the next day.

“One of the criteria for cooks is having enough time to rest,” said Tesei. “We deal with dangerous equipment – fire, knives and heavy machinery – and we need to ensure the Soldiers are as safe as possible.”

While exposed to the elements in a dry, dusty field environment, the Culinary Specialists and Nutrition Care Specialists must also be careful when following the Army's food safety procedures for preparing, handling, and cleaning up food. 

“I keep track of all the cleaning and hygiene procedures,” said Sgt. Jin Ong, a Nutrition Care Specialist, 349th Medical Detachment. “The equipment needs to be properly cleaned, or else it could grow bacteria that will contaminate the food. If the Soldiers are sick, they can't accomplish the mission.”

“An Army field kitchen requires more attention to detail than a civilian kitchen, because there's only a small barrier between us and the outdoors,” said Ong. 

The mobile kitchens are screened in, but food is usually served out of tents that are open at both ends and susceptible to the elements.

“It's my job to supervise and make sure nothing gets into the food,” said Ong.  

Timeliness of the meals is another important element in a successful dining operation. Soldiers participating in CSTX 91-16-02 have a narrow window of opportunity to eat their meals. The dining tent is small, which is often the case when operating in a field environment, but don't let its size fool you – it is very efficient.

“We feed anywhere from 800 to 1,100 Soldiers per meal,” said Tesei. “We always serve the meals on time, and get the Soldiers through the line quickly.” 

The most rewarding thing, she said, is watching the Soldiers enjoy the food. Knowing that the food was made with care for Soldiers, by Soldiers makes it worth the hard work. 

“I'm a fourth grade teacher in my civilian job and I cook every day for my kids,” said Tesei. “I love being a cook in the Army Reserve because I can come here and feed the Soldiers. They are my kids, too.” 

Units are training and operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week during this three-week exercise, and morale and energy play an important role for unit cohesion, success during training, and overall Soldier readiness.

“There's a phrase about Soldiers that if the stomach is happy, it's easier for them to work,” she added. “Giving the Soldiers a hot meal is how we motivate them to complete their mission.”