Beans and bullets - finding new ways to feed the force

Story by: Staff Sgt. Jennifer Atkinson  

Posted: Aug 12, 2016

Soldiers from 636th Brigade Support Bn. and the 136th Military Police Bn. prepare meals and feed Soldiers in a proof-of-concept kitchen during the 136th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade's Exportable Combat Training Capability exercise at Ft. Hood, Texas, August 9-14. This exercise focuses on reinforcing and increasing proficiency in fundamental Soldier skills, such as shooting, moving, and communicating. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jennifer D. Atkinson/Released)
Soldiers from 636th Brigade Support Bn. and the 136th Military Police Bn. prepare meals and feed Soldiers in a proof-of-concept kitchen during the 136th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade's Exportable Combat Training Capability exercise at Ft. Hood, Texas, August 9-14. This exercise focuses on reinforcing and increasing proficiency in fundamental Soldier skills, such as shooting, moving, and communicating. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jennifer D. Atkinson/Released)

FORT HOOD, Texas --The adage “an army marches on its stomach” carries more than a kernel of truth. Not only are field rations critical in maintaining combat readiness by supplying the nutrition needed by Soldiers to perform well in the field, chow is often closely tied to troop morale. 

Field kitchens have evolved, from cramped tents to crowded truck beds, and most recently, the compact containerized kitchen, but the cooks of the 136th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade are getting a chance to test an entirely new concept kitchen.

More closely resembling a “bounce house” than the squared-up design of the modern containerized kitchen, this prototype field kitchen is ahead of the standard in terms of safety, speed and efficiency.

“With this set up, we can knock out the food, move on, and find ourselves ahead of schedule, ” said Sgt. 1st Class Mark Shaw, Headquarters and Headquarter Co., 136th Military Police Battalion. “We would not have made mission today without it.”

This particular configuration of field kitchen is a totally new concept, said Ramiro Andrade, the engineering project manager with Babington Technology. The 636th BSB has been working with Babington and its partner company AAR Mobilizations Systems, over the past few years to develop a better field kitchen design, and will get the chance to demonstrate the improvements to the National Guard Bureau during an upcoming field visit.

Babington makes the heating elements used in the new kitchen, and they're a massive step up from the old burners. The burner units are modular, making maintenance and replacement less expensive, both in terms of money and time spent learning to repair or maintain six different types of burner.

“We cooked 600 of the 800 portions for breakfast in the new kitchen and 200 in the other kitchen,” said Shaw, “and the new one won, hands down.”

The powered multi-fuel burners are “incredibly efficient,” said Andrade, and work within the Army's mandate to eliminate gasoline from military fuel inventories. The PMB primarily uses JP-8 for fuel, as well as any other distillate fuel available, and improves safety by relocating the fuel tank outside of the kitchen itself.

As another safety measure, the combustion element of the test cookers are all completely enclosed, reducing the chance of accidental fires and burns. The hyper-efficient combustion method also means the burner produces no odors or CO2 gasses, and redirects the heat to the food instead of the air around the cooking area, leading to a more pleasant and safer work area. The two-tiered design helps keep cooks and customers cooler, taking advantage of thermodynamics to displace hot air into the top arch of the tent, reducing the temperature in the kitchen and on the serving line by more than 40 degrees. 

“The contractors have had a constant thermometer in here,” said Shaw. “During what I like to call full burn and turn, with the oven cabinet, warming table, and griddle going, it was 89 degrees in here. In the CK, during full turn and burn, it's 150 degrees on the wet bulb.”

The equipment efficiency isn't just a cost-saving measure, said Shaw. It also translates to Soldier efficiency, allowing cooks to better balance technical proficiency with tactical training. 

“More times than not, cooks have to be exempted from training,” said Shaw, “because you can't leave the kitchen with something cooking- it's a fire hazard, but what does that do for Joe when he's supposed to be at a range, or needs extra practice with primary marksmanship training or medical training? You can run 100 different training scenarios, but nothing exempts him from being there with the cooking food.”

Since this is the proof-of-concept run for the kitchen, only the cooks from the 136th MEB, which includes the 136th Military Police Battalion and the 636th Brigade Support Battalion, are getting to take this new design out for a tasty spin, but they're hopeful the feedback influences the choice of equipment, and the contractors are encouraging honest, practical feedback.

“While we're leaning on this, it's really an adjustment,” said Staff Sgt. Marcus Flakes, food operation sergeant with 712th Military Police Co. “We've been using the CK for a while, so it's what we're used to, and this feels like we've got great equipment, but it has to be functional for the cooks.” The cooks have noted several issues to address in the next design, such as floor drains, sump pit piping, and an interior hand-washing station.

“I'm retiring, so I'm not going to see any of this stuff in use,” said Shaw, “but my son is coming into the military. I've got a personal reason to want everything better, as well as professional reason. If I feel like I can look back and I actually did something that made a difference, hey, life's good.”