News: Combat cooks feed 'America’s Battalion' in Afghanistan
Story by Cpl. Reece Lodder
FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELHI, Helmand province, Afghanistan — The clock has barely passed 4 a.m., and the base is asleep. Few souls aboard Forward Operating Base Delhi have stirred to brave the morning cold, a bitter chill that lingers until it’s been chased away by the mid-day sun.
Outside the drab concrete ‘chow hall,’ five Marines trudge in and out of the cold with cooking containers and boxes of food. These combat cooks didn’t rise early for physical training. They have mouths to feed.
In two short hours, the cooks of Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment will open the doors for breakfast, the first of three hot meals they’ll serve to approximately 500 people that day. The meals are a welcome alternative to infamous pre-packaged meals, ready-to-eat, said Sgt. Aaron Sarinana, a 23-year-old cook from El Paso, Texas.
“Everybody is happy to see a hot meal, rather than just opening an MRE,” Sarinana said.
The cooks, otherwise known as Marine ‘food service specialists,’ divide their tasks of preparing a feast of eggs, bacon, oatmeal, waffles and French toast. Some of the choices differ from the previous day, but otherwise, preparation is business as usual. They rip open packages, warm or cook the contents and shift the cooked food into large green warming containers.
With the final product on hand, they await an onslaught of hungry troops and civilian contractors. The cooks don blue gloves and grab spatulas, readying themselves with friendly smiles and sharp wits for one of their favorite parts of the day.
“We work all of the time, so there isn’t much time to joke around,” Sarinana said. “Serving is a brief moment where we can mess around and build camaraderie with the other Marines.”
The chow hall doors close an hour and a half after they open, but the cooks aren’t done. Trash needs to be taken out. Tables, floors and dishes must be washed. Drinks and condiments need to be replenished, and lunch is already approaching.
Between meals, time management becomes key since there’s a lot to do and little time to do it in, said Cpl. Exxon Suarez, a 21-year-old cook from Portland, Ore.
They repeat their morning routine to prepare, serve and clean up lunch. As morning rolls into early afternoon, the cooks begin preparing dinner, their last challenge of the day.
They’ve been fortunate to acquire some additional grills and refrigerators to enhance their cooking capabilities, but the combat cooks are still required to make a lot with only a little. Improving both the chow hall and the meals they prepare are a welcome challenge.
“We put all our effort into cooking and improving the chow hall,” said Staff Sgt. Lance Weier, the battalion food service chief and 34-year-old native of Maui, Hawaii. “We go out on patrols once in a while, but cooking is our job, and we’re going to do well at it.”
Though limited by the raw goods they receive, the cooks pour flavor from their diverse backgrounds — Dutch, Hawaiian and Hispanic — into cooking an interesting array of meals. The meal range from meat and potatoes to Asian cuisine and taco buffets. They alternate between cooking omelets and French toast for breakfast. Every Sunday, they host an ice cream social.
“The best part of our job is making good food for our guys instead of only serving [unitized group rations] and MREs,” Suarez said. “A lot of people come in and say ‘chow’ is the best part of their day.”
Even though MREs are on the lunch menu three times a week, feeding FOB Delhi’s occupants is no small chore. Every day is a long work day, but Suarez said this routine helps pass time quickly as he anxiously waits to return home to his pregnant wife.
“We take our days one meal at a time,” Suarez said, methodically flipping rows of Salisbury steaks sizzling on a grill. “Once breakfast is done, we’ve got lunch. After lunch, there’s dinner. As soon as we start serving it, we’ve got an hour left, we clean up and then we’re done … and another day is down.”
Editor’s note: Third Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.