Cooking with the Troops

Note: This post is a bit long and rambling. Please bear with me as it’s been a week and I’ve tried to write about this experience with Cooking with the Troops everyday and my words have either fallen way short, or my emotions have gotten the better of me and Ive been unable to type through the tears. You may or may not need tissue handy.

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I said yes without even thinking about it. When an opportunity to give a little something back to the men and women of our armed forces presents itself there’s only one right answer: Absolutely. And this event was to be even more special, however, as it was to be a volunteer effort for wounded warriors and their families. Double absolutely.

And so it began.

I wont regale you with all of the work prior to the event and all of the logistics, but I do have to mention some very special people and organizations, and, you will notice a common theme among them:

Roberto Guerra of La Caja China. When I asked him if he’d be interested in participating his response was “For the troops? What do you need?” Cooking with the Troops and the Warrior Family Support Center at Brooke Army Medical Center both now have two brand spanking new Cajas Chinas.

Vincente Cossio of Cawy Bottling Co. I emailed him and told him no Cuban feast would be complete without a few Matervas and Jupiñas and Cawy’s to compliment the meal. His response? “For the troops? What do you need?”

Mayte Weitzman for the Goya Group and the Goya Gives program. “We’re in need of tons of yuca and platanitos maduros,” I said. “For the troops? Whatever you need.”

Mike Freire of Cuban Crafters Cigars. “Mike,” I said. “Im flying out tomorrow for a volunteer event for wounded warriors in San Antonio. A couple of cigars would…” “For the troops?” he replied. “Swing by tomorrow and take whatever you need.”

Jorge Carmona and Joey Lay of Dos Cubanos Pig Roasts. “Not only will we help, but we’ll bring two more boxes and all of our tools, por si las moscas. For the troops? Whatever you need.”

“For the troops? Whatever you need.” The absolutely selfless and generous theme of this event in six simple words. Amazing, amazing people. Everyone I encountered throughout this whole endeavor personified that theme. Even some not participating in the event itself.

As I boarded the plane for my flight from Atlanta to San Antonio, I noticed an older gentleman in the front row of first class with a hat on full of service pins. He already had a drink in his hand and I remember thinking “Geez, I havent even boarded yet and this guy’s already boozing it up.”

I sat down and noticed a young Private in uniform sit two rows in front of me in the center seat, arguably the most uncomfortable seat to fly in. The plane took off and the minute the fasten seat belts light turned off, the old man boozing it up in first class got up and approached the young private.

“I want to thank you for your service, Private,” he said. “Please take my seat in First Class.”

“Thank you, Sir,” the young private replied. “But that’s not necessary, Sir.”

“Private,” the old man said sounding like a Drill Sergeant. “Go and sit up there where you belong.”

The entire cabin erupted in applause as the young Private reluctantly stood and made his way to first class.

Thus, I cried and I hadn’t even arrived in San Antonio yet. (I made sure to thank the old man when we deplaned.)

I was greeted at the airport by my great friend and colleague Blake Powers, one of the founders of Cooking with the Troops, and the one whose crazy idea this was and two very exceptional women: Ellen Adams of Red Hot Dish and Heather Solos of Home Ec-101. This event wasn’t just about serving a massive Cuban feast for lunch, but Ellen and Heather would also be serving some more deliciousness for dinner as well!

I have to interject here that I have been blog pals with Blake for many, many years, and it was profoundly moving to finally meet him in person. I cant think of no better example of kindness and service than Blake and I am a honored to call him my friend.

And that’s the thing about this event. The fact that we all went there to give something back for our troops is incredibly rewarding and an absolute honor, but for me, personally, what has moved me so profoundly about it all has been the people I met throughout the whole thing.

Cooking four pigs and being somewhat of an ambassador for our Cuban culture was an amazing experience, and again forgive this long post that seems to be jumping all over the place but, I am a different person as a result of this experience.

We cooked our hearts out and the food was delicious. The troops and their families loved it all. Yet for me, what stands out the most are the people. Those individuals that I spoke with, shared a few words with and met. So many awesome people.

Like “the Colonel”, a retired vet that volunteers his time there every week and who not only thanked us profusely for coming out and volunteering, but who through teary eyes touched us with stories of prior events at the support center, like that of the young servicemen who’d lost his leg in battle and had a General not only come to the center to do him the honor of awarding him with well deserved medals, but with an American Citizenship.

The Warrior Family Support Center is manned by only a handful of “employees”, yet they serve three squares a day, seven days a week. Every meal planned and put together by volunteers. People who take time off from their lives to give to others. There just isnt anything more beautiful than that. Five, ten, fifteen people running around a kitchen making an elaborate and delicious meal for strangers who have made so many sacrifices for us and our Nation. It’s inspiring and beautiful and heartwarming and it shows you just how far a little love for your fellow man goes.

And those young, beautiful wounded warriors. My God, what incredible people.

A young private asked me to help him set up a Wii game on one of the TV’s in the entertainment room. “Sir, can you please help me with this game, Sir?”

“Of course. And please, don’t call me Sir” I replied. “It should be me calling you Sir, Sir.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Call me Val. No need to call me Sir.”

“Yes, Sir. Mr. Val Sir.”

I set up the game and the tv for him. “Thank you for your service, Sir.”

How can one not be touched by a moment like that? How can one not be changed forever at the site of a young soldier in a wheelchair, missing one leg and the other held together with pins and contraptions, sitting there, playing Wii with his 5 or 6 year old daughter and loving every minute of it? It both breaks you in half and puts you back together.

Amazing. Amazing. Amazing.

And our volunteers. Oh, man. What a crew.

Jorge and Joey and I became instant brothers. From the very first moment we met it was like we’d known each other our entire lives. What awesome people. And Jorge’s wife and family came along and got right down to it: a cocinar. As did the inlaws. So totally cool to see three generations of Cuban-Americans there.

Marta’s family? Look up the word “astonishing” in a thesaurus and apply every single word that comes up and it’ll still fall way short. Heck, the words to aptly describe Marta and Eric and Lucy and Jonathan and Amy Kikita and Adam just have not been invented in the English language yet.

Ellen Adams is a culinary rockstar. Another beautiful, funny and caring human being there to give of herself for others. And one hell of a chef. I ate couscous for crying out loud. Couscous. That should pretty much say it all.

Then there is Heather Solos. Beautiful person inside and out who was just there exactly when you needed her. Chop onions? Sure. Mash garlic? Totally. Open cans and cans of stuff? Where’s the opener. Gung ho and selfless and so totally cool. A Supermom and brilliant writer, to boot.

It’s also a good thing we had a guy like Mike Russo fly in to participate too. Just imagine an Italian from Jersey mixing in with a bunch of Cubans, all working together and talking in our usual “hushed” tones. Mike’s one hellova guy, Veteran, who gives of himself often for our troops in many ways. And, in all honesty, had it not been for Mike it would have been difficult to get through those few days. Sometimes, you need a little humor to fight the tears, and Mike’s got that in spades.

Then there’s Bob Freaken Miller. He’s the co-founder of Cooking with the Troops and a guy you just instantly love. That’s his raspy voice you hear in the background in the pig cutting video Blake posted at Blackfive. Also a Veteran and all around awesomely good guy. What an honor for me, personally, to have worked alongside Bob. His love and respect for our service men and women is beautifully obvious behind his rugged veneer.

And Blake Powers? I love that guy. Honored and privileged to be his friend. All other words fall painfully short, I’m afraid.

I apologize once again for such a long and rambling and somewhat unfocused post. I’m still coming to terms with the whole event. You experience something like this and it’s overwhelming emotionally and spiritually. Essentially, what you take with you are snapshots of brief moments and encounters. Some of them bring you much joy. Others, they tug at the old heartstrings and really make you put things into perspective.

You see a young man or woman in a wheelchair, having experienced horrors you can only try to imagine, and yet they have this great attitude about themselves, and are determined to go on with their lives full throttle despite their physical limitations and it changes you. Your “problems” seem so trivial, so…ridiculous.

And yeah, you might have spent weeks organizing and working to make an event like this happen, and you bust your behind while it’s going down and then the mother of a young man whose legs were blown off by an IED in some faraway land comes up to you and thanks you and you feel so humbled. Your efforts seem so small, so undeserving. You’re somewhat satisfied, yet your heart aches for the fact that everything you’ve worked on for so long feels like a drop in a bucket. That it’s not enough. That it’ll never be enough. You want to do more. A lot more.

Drops will, eventually, fill buckets after all.

You also learn a thing or two. Yeah, sure, you learn you should never, ever, call a Master Sergeant “Sir” – they work for a living. But you learn that you have America at it’s absolute best in a place like the Warrior Family Support Center. Americans of all walks of life, color, culture and standing coming together for the simple purpose of helping a fellow American, a neighbor, a fellow human being in need, Americans who’ve sacrificed and given so much of themselves for their fellow Americans.

America and Americans at their absolute finest.

Hoorah.

6 thoughts on “Cooking with the Troops”

  1. Well worth the wait Val. You are right hard not to tear up. Loved the encounter on the plane and with the soldier playing the wii. As you, I am profoundly touched by this amazing group of people. Makes me proud to be an American! Without hesitation, we need to do more of these….God bless you my friend

  2. Jorge,

    And i have many more moments like those two you mention. So many tender, heartwarming instances that theyre so difficult to put into words.

  3. We can’t WAIT(!) to read about this in the Miami Herald! Heck, it’s ALL here: the warm “human interest” angle, the “Food-Channel”-craze angle, the “local folks go national in a GREAT cause,” angle…We can hardly wait to READ it!

    unreal

  4. I just got around to reading this. Wife of Pitbull, Son of Pitbull, and I were in Naples (Florida, not Italy) today. It was everything we talked about and more. I’m a little crestfallen my work schedule prevented me from going and sharing this experience with the troops. This is what real compassion is all about.

  5. I must admit to a few tears myself when I first read this story today.

    Helping those who had given so much for our country these days puts everything into perspective. As you said Val, our problems are minute compared with the hell these wounded warriors have endured and the challenges they’ll face for the rest of their lives.

    These days that there is so much uncertainty about the way our country is heading and yet from the moment you boarded that plane in Atlanta you saw signs of grateful Americans for their soldiers sacrifice just as you and the rest of the gang went to San Antonio to prepare a Cuban feast for the warriors.

    This is a far cry from the 1960s when many Americans humiliated returning Vietnam vets and gives me hope for the future that maybe (just maybe) America can be saved for the throngs of Marxist/Socialst liberalism (sponsored by the MSM and many others) bent on destroying the very fiber of the great nation founded in 1776.

    You all went and meet many wonderful people. You made many new friends and spread goodwill among those that have given so much to America and endured so much pain and suffering in this war on terror and in the process you proved to everyone like Marta said in her post we Cubans are very proud Americans.

    Kudos to everyone that helped in this endeavor as you all have displayed to many with your actions that you care for those that protect our country and in the process you have displayed to many how much America means to us Cuban-Americans.

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