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December 19, 2013

Nemitz: Maine cook serves with pride in Afghan hills

Watch Jeffrey Pelletier prepare meals for Bravo Company.

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

(Continued from page 1)

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Spc. Jeffrey Pelletier of Waterville, who prepares up to 500 meals a day for Bravo Company, talks with fellow soldiers while cooking.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Spc. Jeffrey Pelletier of Waterville, foreground, and Pfc. Kevin Beal of Machias work on a faulty generator that gave out halfway through dinner preparations Wednesday for Maine Army National Guard troops at Combat Outpost Dand Wa Patan in Afghanistan. Moments later, they fired up the barbecue grill.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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"The only reason I joined the National Guard was to deploy, because I hadn't deployed when I was on active duty," he said. "It kind of made me feel incomplete, like I hadn't done my job."

At the risk of understatement, that is no longer a problem.

Few if any soldiers in Bravo Company work harder, longer and with a more consistent smile than the guy with the 10 large metal food connexes (eight dry, two refrigerated) filled with everything from muffins and breakfast cereal to chicken breasts, broccoli and, yes, those really are frozen crab cakes.

Pelletier's typical day begins at 4:30 a.m. and ends, without a break, sometime between 7 and 8 p.m.

In between, he'll cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for 100 to 150 men -- depending who's here and who's out on a mission. That, on a busy day, can mean close to 500 meals.

And often it doesn't end with dinner.

While his fellow soldiers toss their paper plates and plastic utensils in the trash and head for the gym or the nightly video-game competition, Pelletier drags himself over to Bravo Company's tactical operations center, logs on to a computer and fires off his next two-week food order to battalion headquarters.

Or he'll head for his bunk, pull out his notebook and brainstorm menu ideas.

"Waking up in the morning is the hardest part -- actually getting my feet on the ground," Pelletier said. "There are some mornings where I'm just like, 'Man!' "

So can't he sleep in on his day off?

"There is no day off," Pelletier said. "I'm the only one here."

OK, then how about the occasional sick day?

"You can't 'call in,' " he said. "If I don't come in and do this, number one, I'm going to get my ass chewed and, number two, nobody's going to eat. So you've got to take care of the troops so they can protect you."

Ask him the date or day of the week, and Pelletier will answer with a blank stare. It got him into trouble -- big trouble -- on Easter Sunday.

"I didn't know what day it was," he said. "Honestly, I swear to God."

Meaning?

"Corn dogs."

Ouch.

"Guys were like, 'Are you serious, man? It's Easter!' " Pelletier recalled. "And I'm like, 'What? Easter? Oh, my bad.' Honestly, I wouldn't have done that if I had known. I mean I actually had hams!"

He wasn't the only one with Easter egg on his face: Bravo Company's official holiday meal -- a 70-pound roast beef -- arrived two weeks later. Pelletier, in an act of pure redemption, slow-cooked the roast for an entire night and then hand-carved it in the mess hall for his salivating comrades.

Workload aside, what weighs on Pelletier most heavily is the lack of time and ingredients to turn chow time into, as the food critics might say, an unforgettable dining experience.

Still, his work doesn't go unappreciated.

Danny Wiltsie of California and Ryan Cottle of Alabama work for a military contractor and spend their time traveling throughout the Afghanistan theater training soldiers on force-protection systems.

In other words, this nomadic duo knows military food -- from the good to the so-so to the downright dyspeptic.

"For COPs (combat outposts) and smaller FOBs (forward operating bases), this is by far the best chow we've had," Wiltsie said as he and Cottle loaded up on burritos at the serving window Wednesday. "This guy's got 'em beat hands down."

Pelletier nodded his appreciation to his newfound fans. And moments later, his day got even better.

Spc. Nate Allen of Portland showed up at the kitchen with a plastic bag in hand. This week's mail call included a care package from Allen's dad in Detroit -- and the package included a bag brimming with big, fat cloves of garlic.

"The only thing I could think of was to bring them here," Allen said.

Pelletier's eyes opened wide. Fresh garlic. Right here. In the middle of a war zone.

Thanking Allen profusely, the young cook -- check that, experienced chef -- took the bag and set it down ever so gently on his counter.

Dinner, for once, would be different.

"Garlic," Pelletier said quietly. "Sweet!"

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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The dinner menu at Combat Outpost Dand Wa Patan, posted by Spc. Jeffrey Pelletier of Waterville, has a distinctly Maine flavor. “There is no day off,” the chef says. “I’m the only one here.”

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

  


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