News: Wisconsin Guard food service section named best in region
Story by Vaughn Larson
FORT MCCOY, Wis. — The menu might have read braised pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, soup and salad, but for one Wisconsin Army National Guard unit the dessert was a berth in the Department of the Army-level Philip A. Connelly Awards Program’s food service competition.
What made the victory even sweeter for the mess section of Headquarters Company, 257th Brigade Support Battalion is that the unexpected opportunity to take part in the 46-year-old competition is occurring during the company’s “reset” year, when training essentially starts from scratch with basic individual tasks.
“This was an opportunity that came up and we really had to seize the opportunity,” said Capt. Ryan Traxinger, Headquarters Company commander. “With the mess section we have the right leaders, we’ve had plenty of support from the staff, support from the other companies, and so far, so good.”
Headquarters Company, 257th BSB won in Region 3 and will compete against National Guard food service sections from Florida, Maine, Nebraska and Oregon in the National Guard division of the Department of the Army level contest, which begins Oct. 15. Headquarters Company, 257th BSB expects to be evaluated in early November.
Chuck White, an evaluator with Logistics Systems Incorporated, explained that the competitors are judged on sanitation, food handling, following recipes and the nutritional value of the meal.
“Just making sure that everyone is doing their job so that when a Soldier walks through here expecting a good meal, he’s going to get a good meal,” White said.
White, an evaluator for the past three years, knows a thing or two about well-run food service sections. He completed a 38-year National Guard career as the food service sergeant major for a division, and ran the northwest Iraq food service program during a year-long deployment.
“I can tell you now I’m very impressed,” White said of Headquarters Company, 257th BSB. “I’m impressed with the way they work together, their attention to detail — just overall a good staff. It’s good to watch.”
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Meyer heads up the battalion’s food service section, bringing a wealth of experience in food service to the job — during his 34-year career he has worked in battalion and brigade food service sections and also a state good service advisor. Sgt. Kyle Edwards is the lead cook, responsible for the overall operations of the containerized kitchen (CK), sanitation center and dining tent.
“The combination of those two just made the timing right for this competition,” Traxinger said. “I can’t say enough about the NCO leadership in our mess section right now.”
Sgt. Michael Zahn is the section’s first cook, and runs operations in the CK.
“It’s all about Army regulations,” Zahn explained, “if I’m keeping my cooks in line and they know what they’re doing. I’m in charge of CK operations, overseeing what everybody’s doing, what they’re cooking, making sure they’re on time, everything’s up to temperature so we’re not serving bad food, staying hydrated, safety. My job [today] is the pork chops — I’ve got to cook the main entrée and the gravy I’ve got to make from scratch, and I get to make the coffee.”
Zahn said he was very confident about his section’s chances in the competition.
“I’ve known most of these cooks on this squad for years upon years,” he said. “We’ve done annual trainings together. I’ve seen all of them cook, I know their skills, I know their attitude. They work well with me and we’re great friends outside of the military. We know how we work, and we get the job done.”
Spc. Nicole Mayer, an intelligence analyst with the battalion, said the food during annual training has been pretty good.
“Our cooks take a lot of pride, so I know they put their all into it,” she said.
That kind of commentary was no surprise to Traxinger.
“Our mess section is a real force multiplier when it comes to morale,” Traxinger said. “They continually, through their training and their hard work, have provided high-quality meals for our battalion for the last couple of years. They’ve had hiccups along the way, but they’ve learned from their mistakes. It’s a culture of continuous improvement.”