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Meals Bring Marines Together in Afghanistan

By Marine Corps Sgt. Brian Tuthill
Special to American Forces Press Service

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Dec. 15, 2009 – When Marines hear they must live at a small patrol base for a long time, many think of primitive facilities, dirty conditions and bland, packaged meals coming from brown bags.

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Navy Seaman Timothy Wienke and Marine Corps Cpls. Carlos Martinez and Carlos J. Orellana chop vegetables, season meat and cook sides at the Patrol Base Jaker custom field kitchen in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Dec. 5, 2009. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Brian Tuthill
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

But for Marines with the police mentoring team assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, living on Patrol Base Jaker near the Nawa district's bazaar means good eats.

Dozens of Marines of 1/3’s Alpha Company and Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, skipped the regular meal lines Dec. 5 and followed their stomachs to the improvised wood stove kitchen on camp, where Marine Corps Sgt. Juan A. Flores and his team were frying chicken, cooking rice and topping it all with fresh pico de gallo over Afghan flat bread. Their fresh ingredients were purchased from the bazaar earlier that day.

The 1/3 “Lava Dogs” living at Jaker inherited the kitchen from the Marines of 1/5, from whom they recently took over the area. The hand-built, dual-burner stove is made from engineer stakes, barrier steel wire grates, British military ammunition cans and parachute cord.

"Before we made it in October, everyone had their own little cooking areas when we first got here, so we consolidated them into one big one," said Marine Corps Cpl. Michael H. Gobel, a Humvee driver for Charlie Company, 1/5, who helped to build the kitchen.

"We looked through the junk pile and scavenged parts to build with," said Gobel, 21, from El Cajon, Calif. "I used it to cook on every night I was here. It was way better than the usual chow, and I'm glad we're able to pass it on to the 1/3 Marines so they can enjoy it."

"Out here, real chow halls are not easily accessible, so you rely on your Marine ingenuity to make things better," said Flores, 28, a platoon sergeant from Los Angeles. "We want to live as comfortably as possible, and dinner is a big deal to all of us. Preparing a meal together, cooking together and eating together – it's just like family."

Flores said he was very happy to see a kitchen already in place on the camp, saving his Marines the effort of building one. Before his team deployed from Military Police Company at Camp Pendleton, Calif., he already had dreamed of making his own meals while deployed.

"When I was deployed to Iraq last year, my staff [non-commissioned officer in charge] wanted to make life better and decided we were not going to eat [packaged rations] every day if we could avoid it. We were living in a house with the Iraqi police as we trained them, so we bought and rented pots and pans, a stove – everything we would need to make a good dinner every night.

"Pretty soon, we had infantry Marines from down the street fighting to come over to our house for dinner," he said.

Meals usually start early in the afternoon, with police mentoring team Marines chopping vegetables, gathering wood scraps, preparing and seasoning meat, cleaning pots and pans and buying last-minute ingredients. Their seasonings and spices are mostly collected and donated from care packages. "Out here we can grill it, boil it, bake it or fry it," Flores said.

Flores admits his team's cuisine has a Mexican bias, since his main chef and more than half of his Marines are Mexican-American or married to Hispanic women. Judging by the crowd and smiles on faces of Marines gathered around the kitchen, nobody seems to mind.

Marines like Cpl. Carlos J. Orellana of 1/3, who are not as experienced with cooking, take it as a great opportunity to learn.

"It's exciting for me to be able to do this here," said Orellana, 22. "I cooked a little back home, but this is cooking in the raw. It's a whole new experience, and I'm going to learn a lot, too.

"What's great about this is that it all comes down to taking care of people," he continued. "If someone says, 'Wow! This is really good!' then that made everything worth it for us."

As the Marines begin training Afghan police forces, they won't always be at Jaker to cook, but when they are, "you'll see us cooking," Orellana said.

(Marine Corps Sgt. Brian Tuthill serves with Regimental Combat Team 7.)

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Related Sites:
Special Report: Marine Assault

Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarine Corps Cpl. Carlos Martinez fries chicken by flashlight at Patrol Base Jaker's custom field kitchen in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Dec. 4, 2009. Marines built the kitchen from scrap materials and purchase ingredients from local Afghan shops for use in their cooking. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Brian Tuthill   
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