Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bakersfield 'Cooks' Barbecue Harris Ranch Steaks for U.S. Troops

Steaks are unloaded in Bahrain.

An army of 60 volunteers, mostly from Bakersfield, Calif., flew to the Persian Gulf and Africa to celebrate July 4 with U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines.

Cooks From The Valley dispatched teams to barbecue 12-ounce Harris Ranch steaks for U.S. troops at Bahrain Naval Air Station, Shaikh Isa Air Base in Bahrain, aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau in the Persian Gulf and at Camp Lemonier, a base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, where troops stand watch over Somali pirates.

It was the first time this loosely-knit group of volunteers had barbecued in four different locations, more than 1,000 miles apart, simultaneously on the same day.

The barbecues were staged to show America’s appreciation for the military’s sacrifices, particularly after the terrorists’ attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. They were intended to bring a taste of home to the troops. Volunteer cooks paid for the steaks and their own expenses.

Airlifting thousands of steaks and cooks to often remote locations, or aboard ships is a logistical challenge. But after barbecuing more than 70,000 steaks since the 9/11 attacks, these events are beginning to resemble the maneuvers of a well-trained army.

But even Tom Anton, who organizes the barbecues, admited this latest far-flung trip was more complex than earlier ones.

The cooks left Bakersfield by bus on June 28, traveling to Lemoore Naval Air Station in Kings County, Calif., where they boarded a military cargo plane. Their days-long trip to Bahrain required several fueling and crew-change stops in Europe. They returned to Bakersfield on July 7.

Many of those traveling to Bahrain had volunteered for several past trips.

Catherine Gay, who led the team in Isa, first became a cook in 2005 for a barbecue aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. She has since traveled to Dubai, Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, and to several stateside bases and ships.

“Those kids – and yes they are kids – are over there fighting for us. They deserve the best,” she said during interviews with several of the cooks before they left for Bahrain. “It makes you feel good. A lot of times, they don’t even know we are there until they come through the [food] line. They are so grateful. They are so polite.”

Gay found the experience so rewarding that her husband, David, joined her on later trips.

Like many of the cooks, David Gay is a Vietnam War veteran. He recalls that he “crawled home,” after his discharge from the military in 1970. He and the other cooks are committed to treating those fighting today’s wars differently.

“You meet some great kids out there,” said David Gay, who helped lead the team barbecuing in Bahrain. “They are amazing. You come back feeling very good.”

David Gay, Tom Anton, Rocky Spencer and Jeff Peters are so committed to the cooks project that they gave up their Christmas in 2007 to fly to Iraq to barbecue 600 steaks for an expeditionary medical group.

“I do it because I have a passion for it,” said Spencer, an avid cook, who also barbecues at many Bakersfield area fund raising events. But he said it is the appreciation of the troops and camaraderie of the cooks that keep his suitcase packed and him ready to say “yes” when Anton arranges another trip.

“You get such satisfaction from this. It is a privilege, an honor to serve our finest men and women in uniform,” Spencer said.

“It’s a small thing we can do to help bring a little bit of home to the people who are keeping us safe,” said Peters, who was on the team cooking at Camp Lemonnier.

J.J. Gianquinto, a Navy veteran, whose son is a Navy reservist, is leading the team barbecuing on the USS Nassau.

“Tom [Anton] has taken on a project of immense proportion,” noted Gianquinto. “To have four teams at four locations, all preparing steaks to be served at approximately the same time is, in itself, daunting. To have those locations spread as far apart as they are, with requirements as varied as they are is an amazing feat.

“We will be cooking on the flight deck of a carrier under way. Isa is a remote location that is in a very strict Muslim area. Bahrain base is a U.S. Navy installation. Camp Lemoneir is right next to Somalia … near one of the pirate bases.

“It is clear that the military is at war, but the rest of the nation is not. Those kids must be recognized and made to know they are appreciated.”

This story written by Dianne Hardisty, who traveled with the Cooks from the Valley with her husband, John Hardisty, appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on July 4, 2010.

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