"It's a challenge being married to a soldier, and just the fact that they stand by you, that's what I'm grateful for," said the cook and food service specialist at the 3rd Brigade Dining Facility at Fort Benning's Kelley Hill. Of course, it's the soldiers who grab a bite to eat at breakfast, lunch or dinner at the "chow hall" who not only thank the cooks for their work on Thanksgiving, but pretty much year-round.
Veal, 24, estimates about 300 troops eat at the dining facility during any given meal, although that number will be far higher Tuesday when the food-service crew serves up a fancy Thanksgiving feast in advance of turkey day. The expectation is that many of the soldiers will spend the actual holiday traveling to their hometowns or dine with their families and friends at home.
Veal, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, enlisted in the U.S. Army five years ago. Her choice was either to enter the Airborne ranks or become a cook. Considering she wouldn't like jumping out of a plane or helicopter, she chose the latter.
She is among those who graduate each year from the Joint Culinary Center for Excellence at Fort Lee, Va. The school turns out more than 4,000 food service specialists combined for the Army and Marines each year.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Veal recently to discuss her job, its challenges and what it's like to make sure that an Army is well fed and ready for action.
Why did you want to be a soldier?
For me being a soldier, it was something different as far as building my character and making me stronger, and putting me in positions where I had to be challenged, and I thought that this would be the best choice for me. And I'm the only one in the family that took this role, so I felt that it was very important for me at 16. When I started thinking about it, I joined the ROTC and that's when I realized, I can do it, I can do it.
Did you consider college?
I actually did not want to do college at all. I actually feared college; I didn't think that I would progress. I just wanted to try the military and see if I could go far. Once I got in and started getting a passion for it, I knew I wanted to become a sergeant major. I am just trying to drive myself and my career to get to that level. That's my ultimate goal, to become sergeant major.
You said you enjoyed baking growing up. For whom did you bake?
I baked for schools, for different organizations or charities. I just kind of picked it up as a habit and I would do it in high school and help out people out in the community. I love baking. It's difficult in the military; you're feeding more everyday. But it's a good challenge.
They say an army travels on its stomach?
Yes. Nothing starts early but chow.
Was Fort Benning your first duty station?
Actually, this is my fourth. After Fort Lee I went to South Korea and I stayed for two years. And I (did a permanent change of station) to Bamberg, Germany, and stayed for 11 months. Then I went to Fort Gordon, Ga., which is down the street. It's like four hours away, and I stayed there for another year. And then I came here.
Is that normal?
It is not normal. My career has been very different. I've done quite a few jobs, stepping out as a cook and doing two different jobs. I wanted a challenge. I wanted to see what else the Army can offer me and just observe a little bit more. You get a little tunnel vision when you stick to your own (military occupational specialty) and you don't see what else the Army offers. So it was a good experience.
So you did other types of work?
Yes, I did supply for a year. I did chaplain assistant for a year. And I also did like 42 Alpha, the human resource side for personnel. So I've dabbled in a few different things. But this is my main (job).
Do you plan to stick with this or move into other things?
As you rise, you can try to not necessarily move out of being a cook, but venture into other areas of being a cook. Like you can get into the enlisted aide side of the cook, where you're serving generals or their parties. You can also do flights, where you just travel with the president or any special guests or parties. You can also go warrant (officer), where you just run the entire facility, run the show pretty much.
You've researched this a lot?
There are a lot of fields. People don't realize that. People think it's just a dining facility and we just cook. But there's many little avenues you can pick and choose from.
What's a average day like for you?
I actually run the finance department here. So I'm the one that ensures that the money's correct, up to date on turning in the money, making sure that we are open for business, making sure the guys know when we have different meals, making sure that we organize different meals so that we're not just producing the same thing every time.
You start at what time in the morning?
Maybe 4 or 4:30. ... I'm usually here all day. They say I'm always at work.
Are you an early riser by nature?
I'm not an early riser, I am not. But taking care of soldiers, my job is pretty much never done.
Do you do cooking at times?
Yes, just when taking care of extra special (events), like this Thanksgiving we'll all be cooking to help out, making the pigs, making the chitterlings. We've got crab legs and all of that stuff ... Usually, as NCOs, we're supervising. But when we've got special things going on, we all chip in and help them out.
You deal with the money. The soldiers have to pay for meals? How much is it?
The soldiers that are single eat for free. But we do have cash payers also (married personnel) Breakfast is $2.55, and lunch and dinner is $4.65.
That's a bargain?
It is. I tell them all the time that you can't beat $2.55 for a buffet.
What will you be cooking at the dining hall for Thanksgiving?
I think I might start with some chicken. I think I'm going to mess with some of the shrimp, but I might mess around and eat some of the shrimp, so I might not. I don't know. But we'll be moving around a lot.
Is there something you enjoy cooking the most?
I actually enjoy baking more than cooking. But cooking-wise, Caribbean meals is always my favorite. Rice and beans, jerked chicken, jerked pork, curry chicken.
Is there anything American you really like, other than cheeseburgers?
Collard greens, pig's feet, cabbage, rice, pretty much everything we have on this line, baked chicken, baked fish, you name it. I'm always all over the place.
Is Columbus a good place for soldiers to eat? Are there any good restaurants?
It's a variety. I've actually seen some good restaurants, like Epic. They have duck. Now it's expensive, but it was quite elegant ... There's Rose's (Caribbean), there's Sea Breeze. There's Buckhead Grill that I want to try. I keep hearing about it.
Can you get burned out -- pun intended -- working at a dining facility?
It's a tough job. That's why we always pride ourselves on trying to do the best, because we work so hard putting out all of these meals for these soldiers. But you just always come back recharged and knowing that our ultimate purpose is making sure (they're taken care of). We just get as much sleep as we can, or can't, and try to remember the mission is to make those soldiers have good chow each and every day.
What's a food service specialist's schedule like?
A typical cook, on an early shift, they'll be here by 5 a.m. They'll cook the breakfast meal and then they'll have a few personnel within that shift who will serve. And the rest of the soldiers will help replenish the (food) line when it goes down.
Then the second shift will come in at 10:30 that day -- the first shift has made the lunch also -- so the second shift comes in and pushes the first shift to the back, and they take over the serving for lunch and give them a break.
Then the first shift, they leave at 1 p.m. The second stays from 10:30 all the way until we close at 1830 (6:30 p.m.). Depending on the meal, they might be here a little longer. Like Thanksgiving, a lot of people will be here. So we're going to be on our feet a long time.
What time does that meal start?
We'll prepping the day prior and cooking that night prior, and cooking during the night and in the morning early. And then we'll start (serving) the meal at 11 o'clock (Tuesday).
Do you have civilians working here?
Yes, we do. But they don't cook. They're the ones that take care of the dish ware, cleaning up. They're the extra help we need.
What's the hardest part of a cook's job?
Being on your feet all day. It's strenuous work moving from one spot to the other. But it also helps because cooks have good time management skills. They know when to stop something and go on to another project and keep in mind they have something going on over here or there. So we're always thinking of something that we need to do, and being creative at the same time.
What's the most enjoyable thing about the job?
I think the ability to create and add to the product. We normally go off the Army recipe, but we can always tweak it and make it presentable, make it more edible. And seeing the customers respond to it is always good, because they write little comment cards or they'll come up and ask: Hey, who cooked that, who made that?
What foods do soldiers like these days and just have to eat?
I would say those cheeseburgers. I see them go through a box of cheeseburgers like no other. But soul food also gets them in here a lot. I have a lot more people come in here for soul food days than any other days. They eat the collard greens, they eat the cabbage up, the barbecue chicken. And they go through pastries.
Do you go out into the field?
Yes, we do field work and feed 800 while we're out there. If it's cold like now, it just adds a little bit more to your day. And you have to sleep out there, too. So it's dealing with the elements.
What advice do you have for someone considering becoming an Army cook?
To be an army cook, I would say make sure it's a passion and that you love to cook, you love to create new products. Try some culinary classes. Start getting your feet a little bit dirty with it. Get into a job, be a cook at restaurant so you can have an idea how long you're going to be on your feet. Just be a hard charger, willing to go that extra mile.
And be very flexible, because things are always changing, soldiers are wanting something extra to eat. You have to be able to adjust and move without having an attitude. The most important thing is being able to serve other people.
Would you like to own your restaurant some day?
I don't think so. It's a hard business. Ninety percent of them don't last too long.
Bio Sgt. Kerina Veal Age: 24
Hometown: Kingston, Jamaica
Current residence: Fort Mitchell, Ala.
Education: 2009 graduate of Coral Glades High School in Coral Springs, Fla.; close to earning an associate's degree online from the University of Maryland; graduated from U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps' food service specialist course in 2009
Family: Husband, Eledrick Veal, and 1-year-old daughter, Shysha; and two pooches, a pit bull named Daddy Boy and a Cocker Spaniel named Mama Girl
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with her family, bowling and doing crafts such as decorating coffee mugs