Battlefield cooks put to the test

ARLINGTON — Armed sentries stalked around tents masked with camouflaged netting under moss-covered evergreens.

Inside, troops raced against the clock, trying to finish a task vital to military success: feeding lots of hungry soldiers.

Local Army reservists from a company of the 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command based in Marysville on Saturday prepared lunch for 100 in a field kitchen in the Jim Creek wilderness recreation area.

It’s the same setup used on the battlefield.

U.S. Army Reserve Command evaluators flew in to judge the soldiers’ work as part of a national Army field kitchen competition.

At stake: bragging rights, medals and points toward promotion.

Cooking on a battlefield is no hotdog-on-a-stick affair.

Cooks have to set up a mobile kitchen complete with dishwashers and stoves that’s efficient, clean and safe from attack.

For instance, they have to think about staggering service so soldiers lined up for chow aren’t vulnerable to enemy fire.

In addition, stressed, fatigued soldiers have more vulnerable immune systems, explained Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kim Shiner, an evaluator based in Wichita, Kan.

That means field kitchens must be scrupulously clean and food safety standards higher than those for restaurants.

Think about how tough that could be in the ankle-deep mud of the jungle or the hot, sand-filled winds of the desert.

“If their food isn’t cooked safely, then they can’t do their jobs on the battlefield,” she said.

Perhaps just as important is the effect on morale of a good meal.

“Hot food is a force multiplied,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charles Hunter, a food program manager based in Marysville.

By that, he means that a well-cooked meal can fill a soldier’s belly and lift morale.

All the troops in the field kitchen competition must prepare the same Asian-inspired menu, which includes stir fry and sweet-and-sour chicken.

While cooks can’t subtract anything from the recipe, they can add. That’s crucial to doing well in this competition, Hunter said.

“If you follow the Army recipe, you are going to get an Army meal,” he said.

These cooks enhanced recipes by, for instance, first marinating the stir-fry chicken in sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and cornstarch.

“This is something we’ve worked on for months, tweaking and perfecting the food,” said cook Elsie Fernandez, a staff sergeant who lives in Federal Way.

The results of the competition won’t be available for months, since the evaluators travel around the country testing various field kitchens.

One soldier who showed up for lunch gave it his stamp of approval.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Denrick Mills of Bothell served overseas in Iraq. A hot, delicious meal — that means something.

“It’s one of those things you look forward to,” he said. “In combat, you can go days without it.”

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com

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