Why We Serve: Chef Happiest at Sea Working with Sailors
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2007 Ask Master Chief Petty Officer Bruce “Skip” Binda why he joined the Navy nearly three decades ago and he’ll tell you it was a matter of pride.
At 19, Binda had spent all of his tuition money on beer and eight-track music cassettes and was too proud to ask his father for the $200 he needed to return to college.
Along came a Navy commercial proffering $1,500 to join, and Binda took the bait “hook, line and sinker,” he said. Since joining in 1980, he has served on one submarine and 10 ships and served a combat tour in Iraq. He has spent nearly 20 years at sea, with only three shore-duty tours.
The career sailor is now one of 10 servicemembers selected to travel the country telling the military’s story as part of the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” public outreach program.
“I’ve been able to do everything I wanted to do. I’ve been stationed everywhere I’ve wanted to be stationed. I’ve just been very lucky,” Binda said.
Truthfully, Binda’s future sea journeys were secured long before he ran into his tuition troubles. As a boy growing up on the Atlantic coast, Binda said, he would walk along the seawall in Marshfield, Mass., and tell his sister that one day he would be a sailor.
His father served in the Navy for two years, and Binda’s uncle was a sailor who would return home with stories of his travels.
“I used to listen to his stories during the holidays when we all got together. Sometimes he’d wear his khaki hat. He was just a crusty old boatswain’s mate. That was just amazing,” Binda said.
Along with his love for the sea, Binda also inherited a passion for cooking. Binda said his great-grandfather was a popular chef in Boston. During the Depression, on Sundays after church, he would take food left over from hotels and feed the Italian-American community in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, Binda said.
“He kind of had his own soup kitchen out back, only you wouldn’t know it was a soup kitchen, because he was a pretty renowned chef in Boston,” Binda said.
And, when tourism slowed in the winter, his grandfather would cook on the cruise lines sailing to Florida. “I guess the ocean has always been in my blood, and cooking just came naturally,” Binda said.
After graduating from high school in Marshfield, a town about 35 miles southeast of Boston, Binda attended culinary arts school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. He joined the Navy as a mess management specialist, now called a culinary specialist. Binda has cooked his way to the top of the Navy enlisted ranks as a master chief petty officer and now manages the Navy’s largest housing program at Naval Base San Diego’s Combined Bachelor Housing.
Binda spent nearly 20 years on duty at sea because he chose those duty assignments. He said he loves sitting on deck and watching the sunrises and sunsets. But mostly he enjoys it because it gives allows him to work with junior sailors. “I love being at sea. That’s really what I enjoy. I think you have a bigger impact taking sailors to different countries and working with them every single day,” he said.
Binda said he likes to mentor and coach his sailors. “I’m a father figure to several of my junior sailors. They call me at all sorts of times. I’ve bailed kids out of jail with my own money; I wouldn’t recommend that, but I haven’t been disappointed yet. I just really love working with young people,” Binda said.
In his duties, the chef sailor has served some of the nation’s top officers, including Army Gen. Tommy Franks, then Central Command commander. But for Binda, the measure of his success always will be the satisfaction of the sailors.
“I consider what’s important is feeding sailors every single day. I get much more satisfaction seeing sailors eating and enjoying themselves on the mess decks than I do serving the captain a formal dinner with … distinguished visitors,” Binda said.
His dedication to the lower enlisted sailors is what eventually landed Binda in the sands of Iraq “like a fish out of water,” he said. As requirements came up to fill slots in Iraq as advisors or on training teams, Binda said, he realized one day that he was sending his sailors to a place that he personally knew nothing about. “I kind of felt bad sending him to some place I didn’t know anything about,” he said.
So when the opportunity opened in February 2006, Binda volunteered. It turned out to be one of the biggest learning experiences of his life, Binda said. There he was a military advisor to an Iraqi army brigade helping them set up their logistics systems.
“The thing I learned most the year in Iraq is how critical a public education is. I can tell you after being a year in Iraq and working with people who are largely uneducated … that having that public education is imperative to being successful,” Binda said.
For his efforts there, Binda was awarded the Bronze Star, presented by then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael G. Mullen, now serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Now, as the clock winds down toward Binda’s 30-year mark and mandatory retirement, the self-described workaholic said he hopes to do one more sea tour. He still gets up at 5 a.m. and runs every morning, “passing kids half my age,” and gives no real thought to what he will do when he retires, Binda said. For now, he said, he is happy serving sailors in the Navy until his last day.
“I’m going to be the guy in the cartoon where I’ve got a parachute on my back, and Uncle Sam’s got his foot on my chest, and I’m hanging out of the plane with my fingers and my toes gripping onto the edge of the plane, and I’m saying, ‘I’m not ready to go yet.’ Because I’m still having fun,” Binda said.