GHARMAH, Iraq -- Every day Cpl. Tommy T. Nguyen prepares hot meals for the Marines of A Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
Bringing a little taste of home is a welcome treat for Marines working in the villages and rural expanses of the Iraqi desert. Sometimes, the simplest creature comfort makes the biggest difference.
“Getting a hot meal is probably the greatest thing that happens to us out here,” said Lance Cpl. Jonathan D. Anderson, a 19-year-old machine gunner from Paris, Ark. “Second only to getting air conditioning.”
The Marines perform constant patrols from forwarding operating bases, spread out across small towns north of Fallujah. Living where they do, the Marines don’t have the opportunity to dine at Camp Fallujah’s chow halls.
“We are usually out for weeks at a time,” said Cpl. Travis R. Caskey, a 27-year-old assaultman from Fort Mill, S.C. “We hardly ever get to eat on base with everyone else.”
It’s the small pleasures that keep the Marines motivated. The combat cooks are the ones who brighten the day when coming back from a long day of patrolling, Caskey said.
“I don’t know if they know it, but coming off a patrol and knowing that you are going to have a hot meal and a cold drink – that’s something special,” Caskey added.
Occasionally, the Marines get the special treat of having a barbecue. Recently, Nguyen grilled hamburgers, hotdogs and steaks for the Marines working with A Company. It was a taste of America right inside their reinforced compound in western Iraq.
“Every two weeks or so we get some real food to cook for these guys out here,” said Nguyen, a 22-year-old combat cook from San Jose, Calif. “Today is one of those days.”
The smell of the steaks sizzling on the grill brought back fond memories of summer cookouts and days relaxing in the summer sun for some Marines. They eagerly sat by waiting for the dinner bell to ring.
“The barbecue reminds me of home,” Anderson said. “My step dad is a chef when it comes to the grill. This reminds me of grilling out with him and the rest of my family.”
On the average day Nguyen prepares UGRs, or unit group rations. They are based on the principle of MREs, meals ready-to-eat, but they are prepared in a large steamer and are served buffet style.
He doesn’t get to sear steaks or serve up ice-cold drinks. This is a combat zone and Marines learn to do without. Still, fresh food perks up nearly every Marine living in the spartan conditions.
“It’s a matter of needs verses wants,” Nguyen said, “They don’t need me out here doing this, but it’s a morale booster and I am proud to do it.”
Nguyen joined the Marine Corps wanting to be a military police officer. Instead, he found himself manning cooking stations instead of guarding gates. After seeing the difference he makes in the lives of these Marines, he is glad to have the skills he has to make their days a little more bearable.
“Not all of them say it, but I know they appreciate what we are out here doing,” Nguyen said. “That’s enough for me.”