By Marine Corps Capt. Paul Greenberg
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 23, 2008 - When you step into the chow hall here, the first thing you notice is the smell of gourmet coffee. Next, you notice an orderly array of shelf-stable meals displayed in cubbies along the plywood walls, available to the post's Marines 24 hours a day. If you come during morning or evening chow hours, you will find home-cooked meals, made mostly from scratch.
These amenities were made possible, in large part, by the knowledge, skills and experience of one of the post's most junior Marines, Lance Cpl. Jennifer Shell, who serves as the chow hall manager here.
Shell, a 31-year-old military police officer and reserve Marine from Uniontown, Pa., joined the Corps at 27 after graduating from culinary school in New York in 2003 and from Pennsylvania State University in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in hotel and restaurant management.
Shell said she enlisted in the Marine Corps "because of the pride associated with it, and more importantly because of my dad, who served on [Marine Security Guard] detail in Singapore during the Vietnam War."
Although she was well qualified, Shell said, she was not interested in Marine Corps Officer Candidate School.
"I love the camaraderie of being an enlisted Marine," she said. "You can't find this anywhere else. Sitting on post, staring out into the desert for hours on end, you learn a lot about each others' lives."
The first five months of Shell's tour here were spent serving in the role of military police officer, responsible for the outpost's security and supporting the various U.S. military advisor training teams and convoy escort personnel that the base houses when they aren't out on missions in this remote and barren region.
The military police officer describe their seven-month tour here as "one long Groundhog Day." The standard routine is six hours on guard post, followed by six hours on patrol. After returning from foot or vehicle patrols, the MPs have six hours on stand-by as a quick reactionary force. They then have six hours to sleep, and then they begin the schedule all over again.
A member of Military Police Company B, 4th Marine Logistics Group, based in North Versailles, Pa., Shell and four other reserve Marines from her unit deployed as individual augmentees to 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment's Task Force MP.
Five months into her unit's tour, Shell's squad leader, Cpl. Kristyn Stewart, from Pittsburgh, recommended that Shell be appointed to take over management of the chow hall from a more senior Marine.
"She's a restaurant manager and graduate of culinary school," said Stewart, 26, who is on her third mobilization and tour in Iraq. "I identified a need, and [Shell] was a perfect fit for the job."
Cpl. Nathan Dahlheimer, 28, is a military policeman and squad leader from Monticello, Minn., attached to 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines. "The menu became really monotonous after five months, and everything was boiled, usually in a bag," he said. "Lance Corporal Shell prepared real meals from scratch. She helped improve morale, as her meals gave us something to look forward to every night."
Shell's experience not only created better meals, but also enhanced the overall service of the chow hall in a number of ways.
"The difference in the organization of the chow hall was amazing," said Gunnery Sgt. Jason Stephens of San Diego. Stephens, 35, arrived here in mid-August and is serving as team chief for the Port of Entry Transition Team.
"She's kept the shelves restocked every day," Stephens said. "The overall cleanliness of the chow hall is excellent. People actually want to sit down and eat there now, as it is a nice place to hang out. I think she brought here everything she learned in the civilian community and applied it to the chow hall. Her experience in managing restaurants in the civilian world was key to this success."
Stephens explained that because of the aesthetic transformation in the atmosphere of the chow hall, it became the outpost's social hub, where Marines congregate in the evening to play cards and watch satellite TV.
"I thought it was outstanding," he said. "I was very impressed with Shell, as a junior Marine, taking over the job and running with it."
Shell is scheduled to return to her home town later this month. After demobilization, she will go back to her career as a restaurant manager in western Pennsylvania.
Although she will arrive in time for her favorite time of the year -- the Pittsburgh Penguins' hockey season -- she said she will miss the camaraderie she feels with her fellow Marines here in Iraq.
"Cooking for people here is much more fulfilling than cooking in the civilian world," Shell said with an ear-to-ear smile. "The Marines simply appreciate it more."
(Marine Corps Capt. Paul Greenberg serves with Multinational Force West.)