By Staff Sgt. Jason Douglas
1st Cavalry public affairs
FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARRIOR, KIRKUK, Iraq - Soldiers assigned to Forward Operating Base McHenry near the Iraqi city of Hawijah, in Kirkuk province, Iraq, do not have the luxury of eating at a dining facility staffed with contractors.
Food service specialists at FOB McHenry assigned to 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, are but a few of the combat team's cooks who actually perform duties specific to their military occupational specialty.
According to Staff Sgt. George Crocker, a Chesapeake, Va., native and the senior food operations sergeant at FOB McHenry, a military dining facility needs to serve at least 1,000 personnel to be staffed by contractors. With just fewer than 900, McHenry's dining facility doesn't qualify.
But, for Crocker this isn't a problem, because cooking is a lifelong passion.
"When I was younger I used to watch my fathe r- who was a chef - so cooking was something I wanted to pursue," Crocker said. "I have always enjoyed cooking."
Crocker, a 13-year Army veteran and his "band of bakers," composed of 14 food specialists, are the only thing keeping the more than 800 service members and personnel assigned to FOB McHenry fed.
"We run four meals a day with a staff of 14 soldiers, which is nine soldiers short of what I should have," Crocker said.
Crocker, who serves as the McHenry dining facility manager and handles administrative issues for his soldiers, orders all the food to support a 21-menu cycle.
"We receive shipments from FOB Warrior every four days," Crocker said.
According to Crocker, he often receives questions from folks back home about the types of food he prepares for soldiers in Iraq.
"We have anything from lasagna to chicken," Crocker said. "And for special occasions like the Army birthday we can prepare steaks and shrimp."
For the Army birthday, Crocker and his team prepared a feast fit for kings with grilled steaks, lobster tail, shrimp, Cornish game hens and an assortment of side dishes.
On the grill were food service specialists Spc. Rob Mullenix, Chicago native, and Sgt. Edward Leak of Newport News, Va.
"This is the best job in the Army. It's long hours, but I get to focus on the job," Mullenix said. "But, you've got to be the right kind of person to be in this job."
Crocker said it also takes the right personality.
"You have to have the right type of personality for this to be able to deal with so many people," explained Crocker.
Mullenix, who has been cooking for the U.S. Army for five years, is on his second deployment with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team and enjoys the camaraderie of being in such a tight group of soldiers.
"We are around the same group of guys and gals; we are one big family," Mullenix said. "We are only as good as the worst cook, and we like to shine."
While preparing the steaks, Leak accidentally dropped a steak in the fire.
"If you don't burn the first steak you're doing something wrong," Crocker jokingly said to Leak.
A friendly competition exists between Jamaica native Staff Sgt. Nathan Sutherland and Leak, who according to Sutherland, is the "official grill sergeant."
"There aren't too many people I give credit to," Sutherland said. "But, he (Leak) is the best."
Following each meal, the cooks all retreat to a small breakroom near the back of McHenry's dining facility for a friendly game of darts or cards. Rest is a must, since, according to Crocker, by the time he and his food specialists leave Iraq they will have served more than 756,000 meals.
Life after Army retirement won't be completely devoid of food for Crocker. He hopes to own his own business one day.
"Hopefully when I retire I can own and operate a Jazz lounge geared towards serving older patrons," Crocker said. "Something a little upscale but reasonable to go and have a relaxing time with the wife."