OAK CREEK, Wis. - Below freezing temperatures. A gentle snowfall. The hum of military generators muffled slightly by a formation of military tents.
Only the steady Saturday afternoon traffic along a main street in this Milwaukee suburb, visible behind the tents and generators, contradicted the idea that the Wisconsin Army National Guard's Headquarters Company, 257th Brigade Support Battalion, was preparing their evening meal in a tactical environment.
Even with being in the front yard of their own armory, setting up to compete in the 46th Phillip A. Connelly Awards Program was not an easy undertaking for the unit's food service section. Preparation for the March 1 evaluation began the previous Monday, with contractors plowing a season's worth of snow from the armory grounds.
"But because of the air temperature, the ground froze," explained Staff Sgt. Kyle Edwards, lead cook with the food service section. "So by the time we got to putting the tents up Tuesday, everything was a sheet of ice."
Trying to pound stakes and pegs into frozen tundra was not the only challenge.
"The first few days when we were trying to set up we had high winds, the temperature was right around 5 to minus 5, so trying to make sure no one ended up with frozen toes or frozen fingers, making sure no one got injured was a great challenge," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Myers, the battalion food service noncommissioned officer in charge. "Every day was a new challenge, but we overcame all the challenges and drove on."
Headquarter Company's food service section has been through this before, winning the state and regional competition last year for the right to compete against four other National Guard and four Army Reserve food service sections in the quest to be named the best mess section in the Army's reserve components. Even though the competition menu has not changed - braised pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and mushrooms, tortilla soup and salad - the evaluation was anything but a cakewalk for the food service section members.
"We're all improving," said Sgt. Michael Zahn, the food service section's first cook. "We all have our strong points - it's just working on those things that need work."
According to Chief Warrant Officer 5 Pamela Null, a Department of the Army evaluator from the U.S. Army Reserve Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., the unit was to be evaluated in 10 categories - supervision and training, headcount operations, request and storage of rations, field food safety, command support, staff appearance and attitude, kitchen site selection and layout, how the food was served, equipment use and maintenance, and food preparation and quality.
"We don't try to throw them off - it's the exact same evaluation at every level," Null said, noting that she could not comment about ongoing evaluations. "They're always good teams because they got to this level. They all do well."
Meyer was confident in the team's performance on a frigid afternoon.
"I think today has gone quite well, from overall setup to overall execution of the food, execution of the entire area, serving of the food," Meyer said. "We hit all our marks, all our times, and the overall food quality is phenomenal. They did a great job with cooking the meal and serving the meal."
"I think I speak for us all when I say we did an outstanding job today. We weren't too rushed, we kept our heads together. Overall I think this was our best meal. We've learned quite a bit since the beginning."
After the meal had been served, the evaluators offered some feedback on what they had observed.
"Awesome job for the weather," Null said. "You guys really did excel in reacting to the weather.
"You guys were a really good team - we do notice those things," she continued. "That helps in the cohesion of your team and the meal. It was really impressive - it was actually quite joyful to watch you guys. I didn't get irritated at all today."
Five food service sections remain to be evaluated before a winner will be announced sometime in May.