101st Cooks at FOB McHenry

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Hawija, Iraq – The dining facility at Forward Operating Base McHenry represents a true rarity among Army bases in Iraq; on the serving line, enduring the intense heat of the kitchen, and cleaning up the facility are actual Soldiers.

Cooks Spc. Jonathan Hill, Spc. Michael A. Lockett, and Spc. Jerald D. Jeitner, at dining facility
Spc. Jonathan Hill, Spc. Michael A. Lockett, and Spc. Jerald D. Jeitner, cooks at the Soldierrun dining facility at FOB McHenry, prepare evening chow for fellow Soldiers.

FOB McHenry is a small infantry base in a forward part of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division’s area of operation.

At most of the dining facilities on larger bases, military personnel are strictly there for supervision. Civilian contracted employees make up the bulk of the servers and cooks.

The cooks at FOB McHenry, on the other hand, don’t have civilians to assist in serving, preparation of the food, or cleaning. They do it all themselves.

“The big difference is that we’re actually doing our job,” said Sgt. Dale A. Gaura, a shift leader at the FOB McHenry dining facility and Bossier City, La., native. “It’s hot and its hard work, but my guys wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The long day for these Soldiers begins at 4 a.m. when they arrive at the DFAC and begin cleaning. There aren’t enough resources for a midnight chow, so an alternative food is prepared and left out for Soldiers not able to eat evening chow.

Unfortunately, this leaves a big mess for the cooks to clean up before they can begin preparing breakfast.

“Every day we come in here and clean for about an hour and a half before we can start getting ready to serve breakfast,” Gaura reflected. “Then we usually have two people start cooking while the rest of us stock the fridges and condiments.”

Spc. Michael A. Lockett prepares a stir fry meal
Spc. Michael A. Lockett prepares a stir fry meal for fellow Soldiers at FOB McHenry dining facility.

Iraq is hot. But it’s even hotter inside the kitchen at the DFAC, even while cooking breakfast before the sun comes up.

“The heat of the kitchen can be challenging,” said Spc. Jonathan Hill, a cook and Fairfield, Ill., native. “It might be 80 outside, but it’ll be 120 or 130 in here. Before the sun comes up, it might be up to 110 degrees in the kitchen.”

The cooks spend all day in and around the kitchen. Because they are a self-sufficient dining facility, they do everything necessary to keep Soldiers fed.

That includes, preparing the food, serving the food, unloading supplies, cleaning the facility, taking out the trash, and more.

The day doesn’t end for the cooks until 7:45 p.m. when the facility is cleaned after evening chow and the extra food is set out for the night.

Hill, who took cooking classes in high school and college before becoming a military cook, said he prefers the intense schedule though.

“Time goes by faster,” he commented. “Coming in here and getting your hands on a pot, you’re just constantly busy. I’d rather be here cooking for Soldiers than at another base just checking IDs or supervising.”

Hill said he and his fellow Soldiers put their cooking experience to use. The variety of spices that come with the food is limited, so they make their own spices.

“We mix our own spices a lot of times,” Hill said with a grin. “We pride ourselves on making everything taste good.”

Despite the fact that the cooks here can’t choose what food they serve, they are always listening to what Soldiers like and dislike.

“I get satisfaction from Soldiers if they like a product,” Hill said. “The problem is we don’t control what food we get. We try to request stuff, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to get it.”

FOB McHenry is home to a large number of Iraqi Army troops going through training, so the cooks here feed on average 800 to 1000 people a meal, many of them are Iraqis.

“We know they don’t eat pork,” Gaura pointed out. “So, some of our guys learned how to explain in Arabic what the food we are serving is.”

Hill said that he loves cooking because he feels like the infantrymen, MPs, medics, and all the Soldiers going outside the wire on a daily basis deserve a hot meal.

“Hot chow is like a morale booster,” he said. “If Soldiers had to eat [meals ready to eat] all the time, their morale might go down.”

Hot meals, like a warm shower or a comfortable bed to sleep in, are something Soldiers deployed to Iraq cherish. The cooks at FOB McHenry endure excessive heat in the kitchens and long days, but relish in the fact that they are able to give their fellow Soldiers that little boost for their morale.

Spc. Michael Pfaff is a writer and photographer with 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Kentucky Army National Guard.