IOWA CITY, Iowa - On a blustery 30-degree day, uneven snow packed the ground outside the Iowa Army National Guard Readiness Center. Smells of fresh coffee, simmering potatoes and cinnamon filled the air as Soldiers with the headquarters of the 109th Multifunctional Medical Battalion (109th MMB) cooked the most important meal of their careers Feb. 1.

The team of culinary specialists is competing against National Guard units from Nebraska, New York and Virginia for the national title in the Army National Guard field-feeding category of the Philip A. Connelly Awards Program. It's the first time in 25 years an Iowa unit has made it to the national level of the program, which was established in 1968 to recognize excellence in U.S. Army food service.

Staff Sgt. Ryan Meier said the most rewarding part of the process has been seeing junior Soldiers become more confident in their skills.

"Winning would justify the last three years' worth of struggle," said Meier, the team's culinary management noncommissioned officer. "It would be unreal. It would show we are as good as we think we are."

The 109th MMB won the state competition in April 2018 and the regional competition in August 2019 during annual training at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Meier said team members are finishing how they started -- together in cold weather.

But in their mobile kitchen trailer (MKT), more than just ovens can get hot. The MKT is packed tight with equipment with only narrow aisles to navigate, and it was more important than ever for the team to communicate and work cohesively. One Soldier from Iowa City helped make that a reality.

"You have to get to know your Soldiers you're working with and know their strengths and weaknesses in order to get the mission done," said Spc. Kaylin Hansen, first cook of the 109th MMB team. "If we don't have that cohesion, we don't put out a successful meal."

Meier said Hansen has really stepped up, especially in the absence of the usual first cook during the last leg of the competition.

"When she's been asked to take on those extra roles, she has never questioned it," said Meier.

"Being put into a leadership role very quickly in this unit has taught me a lot of patience," said Hansen. "I've had to step in multiple times as Soldiers come in and out throughout the contest."

One Soldier joined the team as the state competition was ending, fresh out of his advanced individual training. Pfc. Christian Phipps said he didn't have a lot of culinary experience. At first, being thrust into the middle of a high-stakes competition seemed like a daunting task.

Now, he said he's thankful for the unique learning opportunity and appreciates the constructive criticism from his team and the competition evaluators. Seemingly small things, like cutting vegetables evenly, have become second nature.

"I was trash at cutting onions, but no one wants to cut the onions, so I volunteered to do it," said Phipps. "Now I can cut an onion pretty well. Food preparation and appearance is important. Even if it tastes good, you also want to make it look good, so people want to try it."

Whether you're comfortable cooking meat or prefer cutting vegetables, the diversity of the team helps them accomplish anything, said Phipps. Hansen took the time to teach Soldiers in a fast-paced environment so the product was the best it could be.

"It doesn't do anyone any good being selfish and watching someone struggle," said Phipps. "If Hansen teaches someone how to cut cornbread with even lines in 6-by-6 slices, it helps her and helps the team."

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dawn Broe, a food adviser for the National Guard Bureau, was one of three National Guard evaluators at the competition that day. She tested Soldiers' knowledge and watched how they interacted in the kitchen.

"This is a great group of culinary arts personnel interacting very well," said Broe. "They work around each other. They know each other's habits."

Broe said she has total respect for any unit willing to compete in the Connelly competition because it's hard work that requires a lot of preparation. Hansen and Phipps agreed that the support from their unit and community motivated them when things got tough.

"That means a lot to us because it is miserable when you're standing in front of a 170-degree sink with water splashing everywhere," said Phipps, "but then you think, you're doing your part so everyone can succeed."

The rest of the 109th MMB greeted their cooks with smiles as they lined up for a plate filled with smothered pork chops, spiced fruit mix and more. Each member of the team received a coin of excellence from Maj. Gen. Ben Corell, the Iowa National Guard adjutant general after the meal was served. They also received a plaque for placing first in the regional competition.

A national winner will be announced after evaluations of each of the finalists. No matter the outcome, Meier said he believes his unit has made the food service section for the state of Iowa proud.

"It's been a long three years to get here," said Hansen. "This is a big deal. I hope it puts more focus on what we do as culinary specialists, and hopefully, we can continue to improve for our state."