JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – For soldiers living in barracks stationed away from home, Thanksgiving can be a blatant reminder they are not around family. Between the barracks and the dining facility, soldiers have everything they need to survive - but it’s not home.
That’s why two soldiers with F/26, 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Fires Brigade, created their own Thanksgiving feast to share with others in the barracks, Nov. 22.
Spc. William J. White and Spc. Samuel H. Hesse don’t consider the barracks their home, but recognized they would still be with family on Thanksgiving: their brothers in arms. That realization birthed the idea of using their billeting to create a traditional holiday experience.
“It started when [White and I] were discussing the virtues of eating at the dining facility verses having a little home-cooked pride,” Hesse said.
“I think I was just kind of joking around when I said we should make an epic Thanksgiving feast and try to get some people here,” said White.
Joking or not, the two quickly recognized they could actually accomplish the challenge of creating a home-cooked dinner for their Army family. White regularly cooks for soldiers like himself that are tired of going to the dining facility three times a day to eat. Hesse often cooks up fish he caught for others in the barracks. Cooking for soldiers is a normal part of their off-duty lives, but Thanksgiving was a bigger trial than an everyday meal.
Fortunately, they are used to working together in their radar operations section with F/26, White said.
While they don’t bear the striped rank of non-commissioned officers, these two cooking stars fill in as squad leaders for their section on a regular basis. Drawing from the leadership and teamwork techniques they use at work, the two went from overcoming big feats in their radar section to creating a big feast in their kitchens.
Everything was done on the squad-leader level they are used to. They didn’t seek command sponsorship or any additional help for their plan. They made a list of everything they needed and split up the workload as best they could.
White paid for most of the food out of his own pocket, gaining a few food items here and there from barracks-dwellers interested in the idea of creating a barracks Thanksgiving. Hesse accrued as many cooking appliances as he could muster, borrowing pots and utensils as needed from others in the brigade.
Their drastically different cooking styles showed at 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving when the bulk of the cooking started in their separate kitchens.
Hesse cooked the turkey in his room, which was brined with his own concoction of apple juice, oranges, brown sugar and salt.
“I love cooking, but I get so nerve wracked with something this big. If it doesn’t come out right I’m just going to hide the turkey and tell people I don’t know what happened to it,” Hesse said, laughing.
After roasting the turkey, he let it cook with an orange.
“The orange, basically, is another way of keeping the turkey moist while it cooks, gives off a little bit more moisture and helps add a subtle flavor to it,” he said.
Hesse is no stranger to the culinary arts and has cooked turkeys several times before in his hometown, St. Paul, Minn., but attributes a good amount of his knowledge and skills to television.
“I learned most of this from the Food Network,” he said while adding his own touches to the gravy. “Seriously.”
On the other hand, White didn’t start cooking until his time with the Army one day when he didn’t want to go to the dining facility after a long day of work.
When he was younger, he’d watch his parents cook in his hometown, Worcester, Mass., which helped him get an idea of the kinds of things he wanted to learn how to cook. Everything from there was just trial and error.
Unlike Hesse, White takes a less refined approach to coming up with the flavors he wants.
“I see cooking as more instinctual,” White said. “You say to yourself, ‘this is raw food, it needs to be cooked or I’m going to get sick. How am I going to do that?’”
White’s Kitchen is a flurry of improvised ideas and taste-testing that determines where the meal can go.
“I just wing it usually,” White said while peeling carrots. “I don’t really know what I’m going to do with these carrots yet, but we’ll find out.”
The finished product was a generous Thanksgiving dinner that fed more than 10 people.
For soldiers like Spc. Jerry Ledesma, a radar operator with F/26, who helped White get the groceries for the meal, it was a big payoff. While it wasn’t served at his home in Weslaco, Texas, it was as close to home as he could have hoped for.
“I prefer this to the dining facility,” Ledesma said. “You get a group of friends and enjoy a good feast. It was a great Thanksgiving.”
For soldiers on duty like Pfc. Joshua P. Fortin, a Warwick, R.I., native, and a cannon crew member with Battery A, 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment, the barracks' Thanksgiving was a welcomed surprise.
“For Thanksgiving I was put on duty in the barracks on [charge of quarters], which is where I just keep an eye on the barracks, help with any emergencies, make sure it’s clean and make sure no one is entering that shouldn’t be.”
It’s a necessary duty, and one that Fortin didn’t mind having on Thanksgiving since his wife is away conducting basic combat training with the Army. Still, he recalled how no one did anything special in the barracks last Thanksgiving and was grateful to share a home-prepared meal with his brothers in arms when he expected nothing.
“When something like this comes around, people need to take advantage of the fact that it’s happening,” Fortin said, adding, “the food was awesome and I’m completely full.”
People walking through the hallways could smell the feast and were welcomed to take part in it. This was always Hesse and White’s intention. Hesse later went to a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s family’s house, but anticipated there would be those that didn’t feel comfortable going to another family’s Thanksgiving.
“You’ve got to feed the people who don’t have somewhere else to go to,” he said simply.
Everything came out as they wanted it too, and after the meal there were no regrets. Soldiers left the dinner full and satisfied. White is a firm believer that home-cooked meals make life in the Army a little easier.
“We’ve still got a ton of turkey and ham, which means we’re set for a while,” he said while pondering on how to prepare leftovers for the week.
With leftovers like that, he can keep the home-cooked meals coming.