RAMADI, Iraq – “What time is it?” yelled a Paratrooper donning a crisp, white paper cap.
“Five minutes till,” answered another.
It was 4:55 pm, almost time for dinner to be served, and a line had already formed outside the chow hall doors, continued down the long hallway and disappeared to the outside. Hungry paratroopers gazed expectantly through the window to see what was cooking.
When the door finally opened, a flood of soldiers forked off to utilize both left and right serving stations, ensuring they get their food as fast as possible.
“People have to wait longer, but these guys are doing a lot more than people realize,” said Sgt. Justin Gonzalez, a food service specialist assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion.
The 2/82’s food service specialists took control of the Camp Ramadi dining facility from KBR civilian contractors on Oct. 25, in preparation for the turnover of the camp to the government of Iraq by the end of the year. While some have been overseeing operations in the DFAC throughout the Falcon Brigade’s deployment to Iraq, most worked at the Class 1 yard distributing food in support of outpost operations. Now they are all back in the kitchen conducting every step in the process of feeding personnel on Camp Ramadi, but with a fraction of the equipment and manpower of the contractors.
While KBR had more than 60 personnel per shift, the Falcons make due with only 12, said Gonzalez, a native of Houston, Texas. Much of the equipment the contractors used has also been removed. The cooks have to keep up a quick pace in order to make up for the difference. “We’re working at optimal tempo,” he said.
The days are split into 12-hour shifts, each shift responsible for serving one meal, feeding a total of about 2,700 personnel every day. Soldiers have the option of picking up a meal ready-to-eat to serve as their lunch. The DFAC only serves two hot meals in order to make the food they have last as long as possible, said Sgt. 1st Class William Richter, the senior food service specialist for the 2/82’s 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, and a native of Huntington Beach, Calif. This ensures personnel will receive hot food for a longer period of time before having to settle for MREs for every meal.
All of the food from the Class 1 yard was moved to a large room attached to the DFAC, which is now stacked high with pallets of everything from grape juice cartons to industrial-sized cans of peas. Every shift, the cooks must break down about 150 of these boxes to prepare for each meal, Gonzalez said. Some food is taken to the kitchen to be cooked, and the rest is organized in the dining room. Timing is crucial, he added, since some of the food cannot be at room temperature for too long before it is cooked. “We have to manage our time well and reverse-plan,” he said.
About an hour before each meal is served, the cooks load down large tough-boxes with dozens of to-go plates for paratroopers who cannot make it to scheduled meal times, he said. They ensure that soldiers who are out on missions and pulling guard shifts are able to get hot chow, even though they can’t come to the DFAC themselves.
The cooks have been working hard for several hours before the door opens for their shift’s meal service. “We’ve already been here five hours for a two hour service,” Gonzalez said as paratroopers began pouring in for dinner chow.
But even with fewer personnel to prepare meals, and less equipment to prepare them with, the 2/82’s food service specialists are getting the job done.
Just before walking to the counter to help serve his fellow paratroopers, Gonzalez added, “To be able to push out the amount of food we’re putting out with such little equipment and personnel is pretty awesome.”