By Army Staff Sgt. Ashlee Lolkus
Combined Joint Task Force 1 - Afghanistan
PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan (6/13/11) – In the '80s, a U.S. Army recruiting commercial said, "In the Army, we do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day."
That is the reality for the food service non-commissioned officers of Company B, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Lethal, charged with feeding soldiers at Combat Outpost Dand Patan.
Army Sgt. Antonio Santiago IV and Army Sgt. Jeremy Ewoldt are responsible for feeding the Soldiers of Co. B, a part of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls.
"We cook 336 meals a day, seven days a week," said Ewoldt. "We do three hots a day."
"Never done an MRE lunch!" Santiago said matter-of-factly.
"The whole time we've been here. We've never done MREs," Ewoldt repeated.
The three 'hots' Ewoldt mentioned are the three hot meals they serve the Soldiers each day. This saves the Soldiers the trouble of having to eat an MRE, also known as a meal-ready-to-eat.
MREs have never been very popular with service members, a fact not lost on Santiago and Ewoldt. They said they believe most Soldiers appreciate having hot meals for every meal, although it's not something their fellow Soldiers are vocal about.
Ewoldt, having served 19.5 years as both an infantryman and a cook understands that you don't always get recognition being a cook in the military.
"Being able to see this situation from both sides, I can recognize that they are just focused on their mission," said Ewoldt.
"It's not a glamorous job, so many (infantrymen) don't really notice it," he said of the meals they prepare. "We've been fortunate to have some kitchen patrol help who take notice to the amount of work we put in, and that's come as the deployment has gone along."
"They bust our chops, but it's guaranteed: if you're with the infantry, they're going to bust your chops," Ewoldt said with a smile.
Army 1st Sgt. Christopher Casey, the senior enlisted soldier of Co. B., said the infantry Soldiers may grumble from time to time about the menu, the available snacks or having to perform KP duty, but they appreciate the hot meals.
"It doesn't matter what happened on a mission or whatever they did that day … they know they have a good, hot meal waiting for them at the end of the day," Casey said.
Ewoldt said he plans the meals out a couple weeks in advance and orders the food re-supply based on that plan.
"It helps to have people give suggestions as well," he said. "Someone suggested grilled sandwiches the other day and they were a hit. Everyone loved them because they were hot off the grill."
Santiago worked in the food service industry since he was 16 and served as cook for all of his five years with the National Guard. He said getting used to being with the infantry has been a challenge. He was previously assigned to the 3655th Maintenance Company out of Camp Dodge, Iowa, before he volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan.
"I've been trying to volunteer for a deployment for the past two to three years, and I finally got lucky to get on this one," Santiago said. He said there were differences between serving with the maintenance unit and serving with the infantry.
"We don't have as much equipment here as we do stateside, so it makes things a lot more challenging," Santiago said. "That, plus with the work space we have, it's not really big. But, overall, it's not too bad."
Casey said the cooks bring variety to the table.
"Sgt. Ewoldt is a more seasoned veteran with lots of experience and Sgt. Santiago is the young, energetic NCO who keeps Soldiers entertained," said Casey.
Despite the differences in age and experience, the team of two said they work well together. They rotate the breakfast shifts to allow the other a few extra hours of rest. Even so, the two Soldiers don't get much down-time. A 15-or-more hour day is pretty common for them, and they do it day after day, but still manage to help the infantry company manage base operations if needed.
"If they need us for something else, they know that they can come and get us; even if it's for something like entry control point duty or whatever," said Ewoldt.
Not only do they help with the base operations, Santiago has even helped the infantrymen on their daily missions.
"I've actually been on three missions. I'm stoked!" Santiago said. "I've been wanting to go on more because I don't want to be (stuck on the base)."
Helping out around the COP and with missions allows the two to break up the monotony of the life of a cook in the Army, but they said they know their main mission is what is most important.
"I have told the cooks that the meals they prepare are the highest contributing factor to Soldier morale," said Casey.