CAMP HADITHA DAM, Iraq -- Marine Corps Order (MCO P10110.14) explains that every Marine-operated dining facility must be manned with at least one cook for every 50 Marines it feeds.
For the five Marine cooks who feed the nearly 1,000 hungry mouths on Camp Haditha Dam, this luxury has not been available.
The cooks are assigned to 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, and are part of the battalions original 12 cooks who are dispersed across the western Al Anbar province to support servicemembers at Camp Korean Village, Camp Wolf and Camp Hit.
Each cook section faces a serious lack of manpower and equipment, but for the cooks of the Dam they have excelled at applying the Corps mentality of Adapt and Overcome.
Our mission here is simple feed Marines, said Gunnery Sgt. Peter C. Smith, battalion mess manager for Headquarters and Support Company, 1/ 23. But when we showed up here, besides the manpower challenges, our facilities were seriously outdated.
Initially the cooks operated from two old Army mobile kitchen trailers (MKT) that appeared to be from the Vietnam era. The MKTs were basically large screened in tents that offered no protection from the elements and were set up to feed a maximum of 300 people.
We worked with what we had for a while, but something had to be changed, said Smith.
Smith drafted the design for a new galley and was able to persuade a group of civilian contractors moving through the area to donate their time and supplies to complete the project.
The new galley turned out great. It has ensured better sanitation and has given us a lot more work space, said Smith.
For the cooks who sometimes spend 18 hours a day slaving over the steamy pots and pans, the new set up was a relief.
The old galley was pretty much a bunch of tarps with holes in them, said Lance Cpl. Steven W. Street, 21, a cook and native of Cleveland, Texas. Now we can stay warm in the cold and dry in the rain.
Lance Cpl. Jonas Vega, another cook at the dam, was happy to see the change as well.
The old one just had no room for more than one of us at a time, recalled Vega, 24, a native of Houston. Seemed like every time you turned around, you would end up burning your elbow on something hot.
Throughout all their renovations and at times even being pulled for security detail, the Marines never lost site of their primary mission. The whole time, undermanned and under supported, they never missed a mission, said Smith. They are dedicated.
There has been numerous occasions when the cooks had to put down their spatulas, pick up their service rifles, conduct operations, but always return to ensure their Marines were fed, said Smith.
Smith credits his single non-commissioned officer with their successes. .
Sgt. Golder really runs the show around here. He is the lead dog. With out him Id be a lot more gray and twice as stressed, confessed the 41-year-old Houston native.
Sgt. Jonathan M Golden, the battalions chief cook, claims that his lance corporals are the ones that make things happen.
These guys really bust their butts to get the job done. They are doing the work that 20 people would regularly do, said Golder, 25, also a native of Houston. Even when Im not around, they never miss a beat.
But even with the long hours the young Marines keep, they put everything they have into their work.
Lance Cpl. Barberena is wicked in the kitchen, said Smith. He really brings the quality of the food up and always has a smile on his face.
However, Barberena said he wouldnt have been able to pull it off with out the some help from back home.
I asked some of my friends and family to mail me some spices and seasonings, said Lance Cpl Leonardo F. Barberena, an additional cook. And I think that has really made the difference. Also, I like to experiment with different things. Ill make a small batch of it and if it turns out good well serve it as a meal.
But Barberena isnt the only one who takes a bit of pride in his work, where competitions for bragging rights amongst the small group are not uncommon.
Barberena and I used to see who could grill the best steaks, said Vega. I had Marines after the meal come up to tell me that was the best steak theyd had in Iraq.