HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11 continue the longstanding Seabee tradition of giving back to the community by volunteering to serve waffles weekly to patrons of the United Services Organization tent on Camp Leatherneck.
Every Sunday, U.S. and coalition troops on Camp Leatherneck have the option of attending the waffle breakfast where they are served freshly made waffles and can choose from a variety of toppings while they dine among friends in the casual atmosphere offered by the USO.
Those waffles are mixed, cooked, and served hot from the iron by about eight Seabee volunteers who have relinquished their single weekly opportunity for a half-day off in the name of serving their brothers and sisters in uniform.
"Without volunteers like these it would probably never happen," said Tim Kerr, USO programs manager and volunteer coordinator on Camp Leatherneck. "There's only three USO staff here to run a 24-hr, seven days a week operation. Volunteers are a very, very big part of all of our operations, all of our programs. They run the front desk, set up events; they're just totally awesome. Without them, we couldn't do it alone."
According to Kerr, "Waffle Sundays" as they have come to be known, have been taking place since February of 2011. He estimates that only twice have there not been enough volunteers to host a "Waffle Sunday." All branches of service have provided volunteers over the year and half that this popular breakfast event has been up and running.
"We're here to serve the military," said Kerr.
Serve the military is what they do, and that isn't restricted to U.S. military. Service members from a multitude of coalition forces make the journey from their location to partake in the weekly tradition on Camp Leatherneck.
Since the Seabees of NMCB-11 arrived on Camp Leatherneck at the beginning of their deployment in February of 2012 they have nearly taken over all the volunteer duties of Waffle Sundays. The first member of the battalion to discover the volunteer opportunity and begin recruiting fellow Seabees is Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Daniel E. Magee.
"I decided it would be a good thing to do for people and give them something to look forward to," said Magee, originally from Jacksonville, Ark. "It's a great way to give back and have fun while you're doing it."
Magee explained that there were about three or four volunteers every Sunday when he began helping out. That included a couple of airmen and a Marine from time to time. A couple of months later Seabees doubled the volunteer efforts.
"Word got out about it, and more and more Seabees started showing up to volunteer. And volunteer turnout has remained strong since."
One of those volunteers is Engineering Aide 3rd Class Nichollette Stepp, originally from South Houston, Texas. Stepp was sent on a detachment to Farah province where she and her fellow Seabees expanded a forward operating base and constructed helicopter landing zones to facilitate timely medical evacuations within the region.
"I heard there was a huge turnout, so when I returned from my det I figured I would just get involved and see what it's all about," said Stepp. "It's actually a lot of fun. I like seeing smiles on people's faces. A lot of people get down because they are in Afghanistan and away from home. This might just perk them up even if it's only for five minutes; sometimes that's all you need."
One of the patrons to enjoy the waffles is Staff Sgt. Emmanuel Mercier of Marine Corps Logistics Command out of Albany, Ga.
"I sure do enjoy the waffles because it just makes me feel like I'm back home again," exclaimed Mercier. "I just want to say to the USO, thank you very much. It's just like another family; a home away from home."
According to Kerr, the USO buys all the waffle mix, and they rely on donations from people at home who send syrup, jelly, butter, canned fruit, and "anything that the men and women can use on the waffles."
"The waffles are great," commented Kerr. "They're great big Belgian waffles; probably the biggest waffles that I've ever seen. They put a lot of love into them when they are making them, and they know how to make them. I think the word's getting out now which is why the line was clear out the door today. "
Another volunteer, Builder 1st Class Adam C. Booher, claims he enjoys making the waffles as much as people enjoy eating them. Originally from Bristol, Tenn., Booher has spent many a weekend making pancakes for his wife and three children, ages 9, 6, and 2 years old.
"It's kind of a regular thing for us on the weekends. My kids really look forward to it; especially my daughter! She likes me to cut her pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse," reminisced Booher.
The "Waffle Sunday" experience reminds Booher of his family and their pancake tradition. He claims he has yet to serve any Mickey Mouse waffles to the troops in Afghanistan, though he jokes that he "might consider it."
"I like helping people," said "Waffle Sunday" volunteer, Builder 1st Class Ina M. Baca, originally from Eustis, Fla. "It's a little piece of home."
Like the other volunteers, Baca enjoys giving back to the community.
"It satisfies my motherly instinct," said Baca.
A deployment to Afghanistan isn't all waffles and syrup. When they aren't serving "homemade" breakfasts to fellow service members, most of the Seabees of NMCB-11 are living and working in remote areas of Afghanistan in less than desirable conditions.
They are providing measurable support to U.S. and coalition forces by building roads, landing zones, FOBs, and bridges, expanding and improving existing facilities, and locating, drilling, and capping water wells.
In some cases, such as with the Seabees of the battalion's Construction Management Training Team, they are providing direct support to those who will be contracting and constructing in Afghanistan well after U.S. and coalition forces have left.
Opportunities like "Waffle Sundays" are few, but as long as people like the Seabees of NMCB-11 continue to volunteer, deployed service members will have at least one thing to look forward to from week to week. When deployed to a combat zone and separated from loved ones, one minor morale boost per week can add up to a significant contribution toward maintaining emotionally balanced and mentally focused troops.
Homeported in Gulfport, Miss., NMCB-11 is deployed to Afghanistan to conduct general, mobility, survivability engineering operations, defensive operations, Afghan National Army partnering and detachment of units in combined/joint operations area - Afghanistan in order to enable the neutralization of the insurgency and support improved governance and stability operations.