PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan Field fielding is a term that often triggers visualizations reminiscent of Charles Dickenss soup kitchen with a large, sweaty man serving miniscule amounts of soup while laughing when asked to serve more. For others, memories surface of the old lunch lady barely acknowledging your thank-you while she slops on what appears to be mashed potatoes beside your unknown source of meat. For the 864th Engineer Battalion, stationed out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, small portions and grumpy servers are nowhere to be found during their field feeding operations on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sharana, Regional Command East Afghanistan.
As the 864th Engineer Battalion continues deconstruction operations on FOB Sharana and reduces the footprint in preparation for transferring the FOB to the Afghan government and military, multiple civilian contracts that once provided basic needs, including food services for the Soldiers and civilians, have ended. As a result, the 864th Engineer Battalion has taken on an additional mission: field feeding half of the population of FOB Sharana.
At my location alone, states Sgt. 1st Class Eldridge Gilbert, platoon sergeant for the 864th Engineer Battalion field feeding team, my team of nine food service specialists and one motor transport operator, who is assisting me with personnel management, feeds, on average, roughly 760 personnel per meal.
The 864th Engineer Battalion falls under CENTCOM Materiel Recovery Element (CMRE) while deployed to Afghanistan. Most of the units stationed on FOB Sharana are part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). By feeding more than just its organic units, the 864th Engineer Battalion is extending a hand of good will and support towards its sister units falling under ISAF command. Moreover, its a demonstration that the Army is retrograding out of Afghanistan in an Expeditionary Model.
This is a natural step in our retrograde progress as we transfer and close our bases. At some point before the materiel can be moved, before the infrastructure can be dismantled, and before the security forces can stand down, we have to close the dining facilities, chapels, MWRs, gyms, exchanges, and a myriad of other contract services that are essential to the success of our Army to include critical field support representatives for our advanced equipment, sanitation, power production, operations, maintenance, laundry and so on. This provides a great opportunity for our Soldiers serve in these specialty areas to perform their craft in an expeditionary combat environment which is something that we have not done consistently over the past 12 years of war.
For a field feeding team, duties are split amongst seven positions: administration, rations, floor supervisor, shift leader, first cook, cook, and sanitation NCOIC. Due to the minimal number of personnel and the large amount of people being served, the team oftentimes finds itself understaffed. However, according to Sergeant First Class Gilbert, being understaffed is a situation full of opportunities.
When understaffed, said Sgt. 1st Class Gilbert, the Soldiers are forced to learn a lot more, including time management and how to prioritize tasks in order to accomplish their mission in a shortened period of time.
Its a learning experience, stated Spc. Destiny Dawson, a member of the field feeding team responsible for the administration management, and Im enjoying every part of it. There are personnel that are grateful for the things we are doing, and it makes me feel good knowing that I can put a smile on someones face.
Dawsons duties include keeping an accurate headcount, menu planning, filing all reports, managing the distribution of memorandums, and making sure all requests are reviewed and properly handled.
However, for every yin, there is always a yang.
Being understaffed, said Sgt. 1st Class Gilbert, means working longer hours with one shift rather than splitting the team into two shifts.
With limited number of personnel to serve a large number of hungry Soldiers and civilians, Sgt. 1st Class Gilbert has employed certain techniques and procedures for a more productive and efficient team.
You are only as good as your last meal, so every day we strive to make the next meal better than the last, stated Sergeant First Class Gilbert. They work as a team and each one utilizes their strengths to compensate for anothers weakness. In garrison or with a larger staff, everyone will, at some point, serve on the line. But with our limited personnel, we must put the most consistent customer-service oriented person behind the food line. The person serving is a reflection of the total operation. It is imperative that he or she loves what they are doing and believes in the mission. Morale is greatly affected by the field feeding team and if one member is having an off day, I cannot have them serving the customers, and this can be a challenging rotation at times.
The field feeding team has not been operating alone. Civilians working for AMC have helped out by providing mechanics, construction crews, and transportation. In the words of Sgt. 1st Class Gilbert, their help increased the manageability of the mission.
Overall, the Soldiers of the field feeding team are managing this difficult task with professionalism, self discipline, and hard work.
How can Sgt. 1st Class Gilbert tell?
At the end of the night, he says, I can see the exhaustion in their eyes. However, the staff is well trained and many on their third or fourth deployment, so they make it look easy. We may be small in numbers, but I am proud to work with this group of Soldiers because they are huge in heart. There is a lot that goes into preparing meals for large amounts of people, and truth be told, we can never please every customer. I just love the fact that these Soldiers still try!
I always look at things or life as you get out of it what you put into it, stated Dawson. If you put your all into it, then you can expect to succeed.