FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Napoleon said that an Army marches on its stomach, and a herculean effort by the team at Fort Rucker is ensuring that Soldiers residing in the post’s quarantine facilities stay ready to move on and carry out their missions once their time there comes to an end.
U.S. Army Garrison Fort Rucker’s primary mission of taking care of Soldiers is a continuous challenge the team has successfully carried out for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it numerous unprecedented challenges, including how to feed Soldiers put into quarantine status while PCSing, on temporary duty or reporting to the post for training, according to Col. Whitney B. Gardner, garrison commander.
"Making this work was a total team effort – everyone on the installation worked together to make this successful,” he said, adding that training at Fort Rucker never ceased despite the challenges associated with the pandemic. “The U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence command group, all of the tenant units, and later the people at IHG who really helped us expand accommodations and alleviate some of the stress on the quarantine facility barracks – they all deserve credit."
But that didn’t mean the food services operation wasn’t a challenge, the colonel said, adding that the requirement started small, then quickly picked up steam, and then went on and on and on.
“When this started in March, it was just a few meals a day,” he said. “Then we started getting more and more people in the facility, and that meant our great team here had to move into uncharted territory to figure out how to accomplish the mission and keep the Soldiers fed.”
In the initial stages, the dining facility was preparing meals in the single digits each day for the quarantine area, and now, they prepare, package and deliver almost 700 meals a day at the facilities, according to Debra Anglin, Logistics Readiness Center director.
“Our contractor, Southern Food Management, has done an outstanding job in taking care of our Soldiers throughout this period. Plus, we are still serving normal dining facility operations and field chow as well,” she said, adding that field chow is food prepared in the DFAC and then put into chafing dishes for transport to where the Soldiers are training.”
While deftly handling the increase in quantity as it arose, the length of maintaining the operation did take the team by surprise, Gardner said, adding he is impressed with his team’s response.
“We did not expect to be doing it for this long. Back in March, I expected to be running this operation for 60 days at the most,” he said. “The fact that we’ve been doing this for so long and continued to get better and better at accomplishing this mission just shows you what a great team we have.
“We have the right leadership and the right employees at the DFAC, and they care about what they do and they care about Soldiers,” Gardner added. “I’m impressed with how they remain flexible, how they work through the logistical challenges and stay on top of the ever-increasing demand.”
And Gardner understands firsthand how important food is when a Soldier is under quarantine conditions. He spent 22 days in quarantine at Fort Bliss, Texas, after returning from Liberia in 2015.
“The facilities were great, but what really made those three weeks more bearable is that we had good food,” he said. “It was an important part of the day. When you’re in that status, every day becomes routine, and you find yourself looking forward to meals because it breaks up the day.
“Having good, quality meals improves your quality of life greatly when you’re in a quarantine situation. You’re there to protect yourself and those around you, but it’s not fun, and it is mentally challenging when you’re separated from people like that.”
Knowing how important food would be to the Soldiers put into quarantine status, Gardner made sure his team knew the mission, and they have carried out his intent to the letter.
“I wanted to make sure we had the contracts in place and were getting the support we needed to ensure that our Soldiers, those in quarantine or restricted movement status, were going to get the best, highest quality, well-rounded food – not a box lunch. I wanted them to get a hot breakfast, a hot lunch and a quality dinner. I wanted them to get the same food they would get if they walked into the dining facility,” he said. “We have a great team over there and they have truly delivered.”
Even though the food services operation continuously receives many positive comments on its effort through personal contact, letters of appreciation and the Interactive Customer Evaluation system, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been issues, Anglin said, adding that the path to success lies in how the team responds to those issues.
She shared the story of one Soldier who submitted a negative ICE comment on a Friday night, noting a drop in the quality of the food and lack of coffee. Sunday morning, that same Soldier submitted a positive comment thanking the team for the return of coffee and an uptick in the quality of the food.
“Initially, the issues we had centered on two areas: how we delivered the food to ensure it is kept safe in transit and what time the quarantine site needed the meals delivered,” she said. “Pallets and extra delivery vehicles were procured by the contractor and we coordinated schedules for each meal period for the delivery of meals. Both were taken care of rather quickly and operations have run smoothly for quite a while without incident.”
The food services team also keeps a close eye on the quality of its product and responds immediately to any issues that arise, Anglin added.
“Our quality assurance team regularly visits the quarantine site area where the meals are dropped off to ensure Soldiers are getting quality meals,” she said. “We also seek feedback from the staff on how we can better serve them and we ensure the deliveries are made at the time they are requested. “There haven’t been any major issues or complaints to date thanks to great teamwork and constant communication.”
The person running the quarantine facility, Maj. Carl Warren, garrison executive officer, agrees.
“The DFAC team has done an amazing job at providing meals to the quarantine facility,” he said. “I came over in mid-April and I was amazed at how many personnel from the dining facility were involved in the process to ensure the meals are delivered and presented properly.
“There are times the quarantine facility has gone from needing to provide 76 meals to upwards of 120 meals in a two-day span, and the team always meets those requirements,” Warren said, adding the team also goes the extra mile to meet the special dietary requirements of some Soldiers. “I estimate that 98% of time the dining facility arrives with the meals at the scheduled time, which is a big help when some of our quarantined Soldiers are completing on-line training ahead of their scheduled courses.”
Another issue to be overcome is, well, the dining facilities themselves, Gardner said.
“Our dining facilities aren’t fantastic,” the colonel said. “We’ve been limping along with these old buildings for a very long time. What our team is able to produce in those buildings that aren’t of the highest quality is impressive.”
Officials have a plan in place to get the post new dining facilities, but it will take quite a while to get it accomplished, according to Joseph Wyka, Directorate of Public Works director.
“Our two dining facilities remain among the hardest working facilities on Fort Rucker,” he said. “DPW has partnered with the LRC over the past year to keep them in operation through some challenging facility issues. Although a new dining facility is templated as part of a new Advanced Individual Training Complex, at this point this facility will not be up and operational until 2030.
“We have developed some good workarounds for heating, cooking and dish washing issues that allowed the LRC to continue to provide meals to Soldiers in training and even support quality hot meals for our Soldiers in quarantine,” Wyka added. “The new dining facility will allow us to greatly improve our level of service to our Soldiers, so we continue to advocate for it to be moved forward in the construction program.”
Although no end is in sight for ceasing the food services operation at the quarantine facilities, Gardner is confident his team is up for any challenge.
“They have proven themselves time and time again, and I have no doubt that they will continue to take good care of our Soldiers for as long as this mission remains,” he said.