Monday, September 19, 2005


Profiles: Cooks and Contractors

Much has been made of the “outsourcing” of many military functions, and nowhere is that so pervasive as the current situation with Dining Facilities (DFAC) in Iraq. For Army cooks do not cook in Iraq and many other forward areas, they “supervise” those who do. That means, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) contractors. Well, more precisely, foreign national (but not host country) subcontractors for KBR.

Longtime readers will no doubt remember a post on the DFAC and the experience “wond’rous & strange” of eating in a military DFAC. Most of us experienced the closest we’ve come to combat at the DFAC, as described in this post.

Listen, when you are deployed to a FOB in Iraq, and just about every peacetime pleasure available to you Stateside has been either made illegal or impossible to accommodate here, the DFAC takes on an almost sacred importance. (Except for a subculture of pantry hoarders, more on that later.)

We were very fortunate in having a fully established mess section within our Battalion before we mobilized. Colocated with our Division HQ, we had to share kitchen and “dining hall” space with Division cooks at our Armory. Our cooks always took special care, went above and beyond for the Soldiers, and the Mess NCOIC was always very adept at manipulating the food services, purchasing, and acquisition process, where he made the Army system produce, both in quality and quantity. And his cooks knew how to cook. He had a soup maker, a couple of great grill men, a pastry chef, an old timer who did all the parties at the Last Drop Club (more on that later, too), and he himself has his own catering business on the side.

I think we need to have him do a Pig Roast for us when we get back Stateside.

For a while, the BN and the Division cooks would take turns each month’s drills, who would cook the noontime meal. You always knew whose turn it was. Likewise, you always knew which mess section would be asked to “head up” the holiday meal at the December Drill. (I don’t mean to slight the Division cooks, we had ‘em outnumbered, and they’re cooks wanted to work for us, too!)

One of our big concerns in mobilization was what would be our actual missions while deployed. We’d heard about KBR, how they do all the cooking, our cooks wouldn’t be needed, etc. We even heard they might be asked to work Detainee Operations, or force protection on the FOB (before we found out we ALL do force protection on the FOB). So the Mess Sergeant and his crew were not a small bit anxious and uncertain.

They weren’t given much time to think about things during Mobilization Training. Once we had all completed the certification training, and settled down into something pretty close to full time Active Duty Army, they ended up running a DFAC at the mobilization site, running 4 meals, and actually cooking. They loved it, the Soldiers appreciated our own cooks cooking, not having to travel to New Post to get a meal…They ran that DFAC for about 8 weeks, and spent another 4 or so staffing rotations at the DFACs on New Post as well. They worked their butts off, all the while keeping up with our training as well, for convoys, defensive operations, briefings, and so forth.

Now deployed, his cooks manage the “headcount” of how many Military and Civilian diners come in each meal, supervise food preparation (to an extent), and otherwise make sure the Contractors are doing okay. They are aided in this by a Civilian Manager of the DFAC, usually an Aussie or a Brit, who is the senior KBR employee for the DFAC, and works with our NCOIC to keep both the military and civilian sides at peace.

The contractors are all third country nationals (TCN), referring to the fact that Iraqis aren’t allowed to take those jobs on the FOBs. The cooks are Indians, more Pakistanis, and from various Asian and African countries. One of the fringe benefits of this employment arrangement is that the folks from Southern Asia keep treating us to various Curries and Indian style buffets, which helps (if you like that sort of food, as I do) break up the monotony of the Army’s 14 Day Meal Plan, even with all the extras they try to load us down with.

As my Mess NCOIC laments, these guys have no idea about portion control. It’s ironic, guys as skinny as a pencil or otherwise pretty slight compared to these big American GIs, and they load up the plates like you’re eating for two. After a while, the my NCOIC and their manager got after them, to at least pause after the first big scoop or shovel of the main course, and only ladle more if the Soldier “asks for it.”

Surprisingly, a lot of our Soldiers don’t go to the DFAC often. Many are down to one meal a day. Some avoid the crowds, and think that eventually, one lucky Jihadi mortar team will strike it big. Most are trying not to gain 50 pounds while we’re here. Many complain that you leave the DFAC smelling like grease. Many of the younger guys crave anything like a fast food meal, which means they’ll join a convoy to hit Burger King or Pizza Hut, and make do with Subway on the FOB if it means no DFAC.

Not a few are Pantry Hoarders. One of our Soldiers, in his late forties, doesn’t much care for any of the food that’s made; he subsists on a wall to wall food pantry he built in his room, stocked with canned and packaged foods from care packages and the PX. He has had more food than most people have possessions, and I don’t remember ever seeing him in the DFAC. I don’t know how he got it all pulled together, for all I know he had a bomb shelter’s worth of food smuggled in the connex on the way here.

You might wonder how the cooks keep from going crazy. Well, we keep the NCOIC pretty busy these days, he’s been my stand-in as First Sergeant as I’ve been stand-in for the CSM, first while he was on leave and later, with a project to downsize on our FOB and reduce the number of buildings we inhabit. He makes a great 1SG. I’m more of a softy, try to reason with the Soldiers; he pretty much is a no-nonsense leader. He says a lot, “If he worked for me in my business, I’d fire him!” He’s actually taught me a lot about when to take a hard line and say enough with the excuses. He and the LT gang up on me a lot; my Captain is nice enough to remark, “different leadership styles.” (He doesn’t say but I think, “Intel weenie versus hard-nosed business owner.”)

One cook in his spare time referees basketball games. This suits his temperament, as he is invariably right about most everything, and as referee no one gets to argue for too long without getting ejected. Two of our cooks, one profiled in this story, have got our unit involved in Operation I Can, which I mentioned briefly here. (Remember about the shoes, it’s all about he shoes, Manolo. What’s with shoe blogging, anyway?)

The one Vietnam Veteran in the bunch, quite adrift from not having a “Last Drop Club” to run like at the Armory, has taken to monitoring for waste, fraud, and abuse on the part of KBR, and never tires of regaling us of one malfeasance or malpractice or another, although this usually strays into National politics before too long, when I try to absent myself before this dyed in the wool Union Democrat goes off on some new line of attack. I think he has accepted the fact that, at least in the more obvious ways, Iraq is not like Vietnam, but we had him going there for a while, with our training, and occasional mortars…

And all of them become just about the most popular Soldiers on the FOB. I don’t just mean the really social one with whom everybody seems to be infatuated, it seems to happen to all of them. They know all the Soldiers, they pay particular attention to the gun crews that come in straight from convoys, they make a big deal over everybody, they do small favors, they try to make what they can special. They take care of us.

Our guys tease them. They stand at the front door, using a counting device to keep track of how many Military come in. (They log the civilians as there are less of them.) So all of our Soldiers, they only activity they see, the cook is standing there, “click” and “click” and “click,” and sometimes a “click click,” for two diners coming in together.

We were in hysterics one day, when the NCOIC told us he had to fly to Baghdad and go through training for Headcount. “What, you need to learn some new technique? Using your index finger instead of your thumb? Here, I can save you the trip: click…click…click click.!” (I am sure he gets tired of hearing the clicking jokes.)

Now while I am a certified project manager (PMP) by profession stateside when not mobilized, I don’t claim to any particular knowledge or point of view regarding KBR, their contracts, or the manner in which they are awarded, implemented, or monitored. No one’s asked me to do an audit, nor do I have access to the pertinent project financials to render an informed opinion.

But I do know one thing. You can’t pay for what comes from the heart. No offense to the KBR employees, or their subcontractors. I know many of them are dedicated professionals as well. But I know my cooks. Based on their commitment, concern for the Soldier, and their ability to cook, I’d have KBR packed and out on the first Charter flight out of theater, and let these Army cooks do what they do best. Take care of the Soldier.

Other Profiles in the Series:

The LT
The Motor Sergeant
The CO

Links: Outside the Beltway, Basil's Blog, bRight & Early, Mudville Gazette, Dawn Patrol at Mudville

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