FORT SILL — The kitchen at Fort Sill's largest mess hall is a battlefield come Thanksgiving.
Except instead of rifles, the enlisted men carry carving knives; and instead of enemy combatants, they strategize against food-borne illness.
“We're soldiers first, and then we're cooks — but you do the same thing here,” said Sgt. Sean Kennedy, first cook in the Garcia Dining Hall Facility. “You prepare, you make sure everything's good, you make sure it's stored right, that it's at the correct temperature. That's always in the back of your head — be safe.”
Wednesday, Kennedy led the first of three platoons responsible for cooking and serving Thanksgiving dinner this year. Similar teams are set up at four other dining halls across Fort Sill, about 90 miles southwest of Oklahoma City and home to the U.S. Army's Field Artillery and Air Defense Artillery.
Tactical crew begins
The prep crew was relieved by a tactical crew at 8 p.m., and at 5 a.m. the countdown to zero hour was scheduled to commence.
The mission: Make sure when the 3,500 basic trainees — with friends, family, retirees and anyone else who wants to join — start streaming in at 11:30 a.m., they forget they're not at home for the holidays.
With several industrial-size ranges, walk-in coolers and freezers and endless counter space, Kennedy said his current field of operations is a luxury compared to cooking in a real battlefield.
“You couldn't do this with raw meats down range because you can't trust the water source,” he said, shoving a vat of diced turkey under a sink faucet. “There you have to open water bottles.”
Instead of artillery shells and explosives, the Thanksgiving munitions at Garcia include 250 hams and 300 whole turkeys; 250 Cornish hens and 150 crab legs. Wearing white aprons and paper boat hats, the men will peel 100 pounds of shrimp and prepare 300 pounds of prime rib.
The strategic plan — er, menu — also calls for zesty bean soup, mashed potatoes, bread dressing, green bean casserole and plenty of vegetables and sauces. On a table in the back, soldiers decorated a 396-square-inch carrot cake-yellow cake blend.
Come dinnertime, cooks will slice to-order four 50-pound slabs of steamship round.
Year's biggest meal
Sgt. Billy Belvin, dining facility manager, oversees the entire Garcia operation like a general, from decorations through the final cycle of the dishwasher.
It takes 50 of his men about 24 hours to prepare food for the 1,000 patrons expected for dinner at this particular dining hall, Belvin said. At Garcia, the public is invited to join, he said. Most diners, however, will be single soldiers too far from home to travel, or trainees who do not get any time off.
It's the largest dining operation he will manage this year, Belvin said.
“Putting a meal like this together is very hectic,” he said. “It requires a lot of talent, and people can get frustrated. But at the end of the day, seeing the soldiers come in with a smile on their face is all worth it.”
A 19-year-veteran of the U.S. Army, he said he's most thankful this year for his two daughters.
But gazing around at his troops in the kitchen, he said it's hard not to feel blessed by his men.
“They're here doing all the good stuff,” he said.
“I do ask a lot of them, and they do come through,” he said.
Putting a meal like this together is very hectic. It requires a lot of talent, and people can get frustrated. But at the end of the day, seeing the soldiers come in with a smile on their face is all worth it.”
Sgt. Billy Belvin,
Dining facility manager