By 1st Lt. William FergusonOctober 23, 2014
Esprit de corps. It is an all-too-familiar, perhaps overused, motto thrown around to incite camaraderie and inspire a sense of purpose within the ranks. All commands allude to it. Strong commands invoke it. The 17th CSSB deployed to Afghanistan in June and was comprised of modular units hailing from Alaska, New York, Texas, Alabama, Colorado and Puerto Rico, it was important to establish a sense of teamwork early on.
Lt. Col. Brian Formy-Duval, 17th CSSB Commander, emphasized the importance of this event for not only esprit de corps but also for military tradition saying, "This was an event where we could show leaders some honors and traditions of the Army and do it in a deployed environment."
Right arm nights, hail and farewells, physical fitness challenges and leadership development programs were peppered across the battalion's battle rhythm, but there was something missing -- a grand, culminating spectacle that would be something remembered, told in folklore and hopefully recycled as lieutenants become commanders and staff sergeants become sergeants major. The mission became clear: to put on a dining-in, a common military tradition, in anything but a common locale.
The planning process began early during the deployment as 1st Lt. William Ferguson and Sgt. 1st Class Ronnie Farmer took on the challenge as the officer and noncommissioned officer in charge. A committee of thirteen was soon built and regular planning meetings were underway. The committee commandeered a tent in the Retro Sort Yard (RSY). Along with the tent came assistance from the yard OIC, 1st Lt. Mitchell Hutchinson, and his dedicated team of Soldiers who got to work preparing for a task unlike any other.
Air Force 463L "Master Pallets," sandbags, camouflage netting, and tri-wall kicker boxes were hauled in by the truckload. As the days came and went, a proper dining hall began to take shape.
Hutchinson spoke of the tent's transformation saying, "The Soldiers worked hard converting an empty tent into such a unique setting. They really came together as a team and enjoyed using their creativity to produce an amazing atmosphere. It was truly an extraordinary transformation."
With a stage nearly constructed, a show needed production.
The committee of thirteen grew rapidly as toasts, skits and the grog concoction all became identified in the scripting process. The intent was for the Tactical Dining-In, possibly the first of its kind, to bring the unit together. The planning and preparation process seemed to be achieving the goal ahead of schedule. In addition to typical duties (company executive officer, battalion maintenance officer, operations NCO, etc.), nearly 100 personnel had become fully involved with the daily operations of the quickly approaching dinner party. Despite dust storms, the location was prepped, the food was delivered and the mic was open.
The event began like any other -- with a social half-hour full of finger food, conversation and classic rock. But that's where the ordinary ended. Mr. Vice, Maj. Bart Lajoie -- 17th CSSB Support Operations Officer (SPO) emerged from behind the camouflage walls to entrance music and passed through the crowd to his podium where he highlighted the Rules of the Mess.
As the crowd entered into the makeshift dining hall for the first time, the grandeur of the Tactical Dining-In was revealed. Tables built from sandbags and pallets, ammo-can centerpieces filled with dunnage, and a bunker protecting Mr. Vice's throne all created the atmosphere that was equal parts classy and rugged.
The members of the mess were followed in by the official party, highlighted by Brig. Gen. Donnie Walker, Jr., the 3rd Sustainment Command's (Expeditionary) Commanding General. Walker was visibly entertained by a unique event, rare for a general officer with 27 years of military experience.
"The bottom line is that the 17th CSSB helped sort, track and transport equipment as the logistical arm of the CENTCOM Material Retrograde Element" Walker addressed the 17th CSSB with words of encouragement and praise. "You have saved the Army millions and have done so at, what can simply be called, one of the most historical times in our nation's history. This is truly amazing work by an amazing team!"
Once the commanding general gave his speech, the fun was underway as the 17th CSSB's company commanders and first sergeants made their contributions to the grog under the guidance of the headquarters company commander and master of the grog, Capt. Gina Thomas. Adorned in a pink cape and black horns, the master of the grog headlined the colorful act.
"The grog was a good introduction to the fun and entertainment that was going to take place the rest of the night," said Thomas. "It was a great experience to be able to lead the grog and give a history lesson about our battalion while putting on a production." Following the grog there was a buffet style meal, a multitude of punishments handed down by Mr. Vice, and a video of the battalion's various missions during Operation Enduring Freedom XIV.
After the battalion commander recognized some of the personnel responsible for the dining-in's success, the colors were retired and the mess was closed, bringing this one-of-a-kind event to an end. Just twelve hours later the tent would be cleared, stripped and broken down, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust behind.
"It was very sad watching it go away," said Ferguson. "Months of effort and creativity from a lot of people ended with laughter and some great stories to take back to the States. Definitely a huge success for the unit."
The hope is that the Tactical Dining-In will be brought back along with the stories.
"This was a great event that I hope our younger leaders will do when they are battalion commanders and command sergeants major," said Formy-Duval. "The next one may take place in Fort Allen, Puerto Rico, Fort Richardson, Alaska, or Fort Hamilton, New York. What is certain is that, wherever it happens, it will be an event truly dedicated to esprit de corps and it will pay homage back to the 17th CSSB gathered in a tent on a cool Afghanistan night."