FORT LEE, Va. – From his perspective, the 46th iteration of the Joint Culinary Training Exercise taking place here March 4-11 represents an almost storybook close to a 30-year career.
Sgt. Maj. Ken A. Fauska has never competed in the JCTE, but he has walked the same paths as the expected 200-plus military chefs from around the globe coming to Fort Lee to demonstrate their talents. They also represent the near- and long-term future, whereas he will have thoughts of a three-decade journey mostly involving the preparation of hundreds of thousands of meals for Soldiers all over the world.
What has seen Fauska through it all? How did he endure the drudgery sometimes associated with food service – the “o’dark thirty” breakfast preparations; the sometimes-unappreciative patrons; and the every-now-and-then frigid conditions of field feeding?
Fauska offered a quick and simple response: maintaining a positive attitude.
“Without doubt, there have been some tough days in the Army,” said the Tomah, Wis., native, “but I’ve always tried to remain positive.”
Is that all there is to a successful 30-year Army career? Keeping the right attitude?
Yes, Fauska confirmed, along with large doses of support from those around you, such as family.
“I’m very family oriented,” said the 47-year-old who has served as the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence senior enlisted advisor since 2020. “My wife [Amanda] is my biggest supporter. She still packs my lunch … [and] makes my coffee every day.”
Over their 28 years of marriage, she’s also known to frequently drop off and pick up her husband from work in addition to managing everything at home with the children – Alex and Katelyn, who similarly wear the Fauska team jerseys with heaping measures of pride – again lending credence to his statement that “No one can do this alone.”
“My kids are little Soldiers,” Fauska boasted. “Granted, they never [enlisted], but they’ve always been involved, whether in an FRG event or otherwise. If it’s a volunteer thing, they’re always part of it. That’s what they do. So, really, I think this is where my success has come from; just having that family involvement.”
Fauska’s journey into the Army Food Service program was kick-started in his teenage years when he worked as a summer hire in a dining facility at Fort McCoy, Wis. He said he quickly recognized how that food service environment differed from a typical civilian restaurant.
“[It] was the interaction between the [food service] Soldiers and their customers,” Fauska recalled. “There was such a camaraderie between the troops when they saw their culinary specialists. That’s what really attracted me. I said to myself, ‘I want to be that guy Soldiers will come to when they’re hungry; when they need something; somebody [who] reinforces their morale.’”
Thus, he considered no other military occupational specialty alternatives when he enlisted at age 18.
“I went to the MEPs and … said, ‘I want to be a 94B (the former alphanumerical designator for culinary specialist).’ In my mind, I’ve always had that perception [Soldiers] need me, and they can’t do their job without me. I’m just as much a part of this organization as an infantryman.”
Since joining in 1993, Fauska has worked in and around garrison and field kitchens. He took on administrative positions and challenged himself as a recruiter. He “survived,” in his words, five warrior restaurant manager positions.
He has learned much, especially from recruiter duty in the Indianapolis area. There, Fauska found that inner-person who was “quiet by nature” could be outward, talkative and engaging when he needed to be – much to the surprise of those who knew him to be the opposite. The people skills gained allowed him to perform during Soldier competitions, to include the Sgt. Audie Murphy Board. He earned the club’s distinctive medallion and companion powder blue ribbon in 2008.
Reflecting on the many challenges of his career, Fauska said none matched his experience on 9/11 when he was processing two 17-year-old recruits for enlistment. He was directed to cease all activities and drive the candidates home where he needed to explain to their parents why the process was suspended.
“They both lived in rural towns outside of Fort Wayne, Ind. As I go (into the residences), I’m thinking, ‘Wow! What am I going to say to mom and dad?’” recalled Fauska, not knowing how the parents might respond to the possibility their sons could ship off for war in the very near future.
Believing honesty was the best policy, Fauska made it clear there was much uncertainty surrounding the nation’s response to the terrorist attack but they could be part of the team that embodies the nation’s strength when needed most.
“We just didn’t know at the time,” he said, providing assurance to the parents on one hand while expressing uncertainty on the other. Whatever he said worked. Both recruits – with their parents’ permission – joined the following day; one as a signal Soldier and the other as a culinary specialist.
Fauska would go on to face many challenges, changes and triumphs in the ensuing years. As he climbed the ranks to his current position, he gained the ability to recognize where the culinary career field was heading, which he shared with an increasing level of gusto. It is “not your father’s food service,” he said, touting the many innovations that distinguish it from yesteryear. They include new programs such as ACTION, or the Army Commitment To Improve Overall Nutrition, a forum for those in the food service enterprise to collaborate, update policies and prioritize efforts.
“We’ve been at this for two years now,” Fauska said, “and we’ve seen a huge turnaround in our warrior restaurants. Soldiers are no longer meeting the standard. They’re exceeding [it] and providing so much more to diners.”
The forums have resulted in aesthetic changes to warrior restaurant salad bars to make them more appealing. There is greater emphasis on fresh food, ways to boost nutritional education and much more.
Another change Fauska noted is the continued improvement of food service personnel, who are often associated with negative stereotypes calling into question their qualifications. Culinary Soldiers are beginning to broaden their horizons, volunteering for duties outside the realm of food service and, thus, becoming vital advisors to commanders. Fauska conveys a message of continuance, encouraging troops to not only make contributions as culinarians but as Soldiers who have a stake in the overall mission.
“An imperative I express to the up-and-coming senior NCOs is that it’s so important for you to have a voice within your organization,” he said. “Your span of influence is so important – that when you’re a first sergeant or a sergeant major, they look to you as a subject matter expert. You are the – using an old term – ‘mess daddy;’ the one expected to provide guidance to the commander as to how he is going to feed his Soldiers.
“Having that involvement in everything that’s happening in your unit– attending the training meetings, attending all of the planning before you go out to that field training exercise – is so important. That’s how you become an element of light within that organization.”
In addition to seeing culinary specialists step up as Soldiers, Fauska said he is proud of the many opportunities available to food service personnel, which are some of the most enriching in the Army.
“I don’t think its common knowledge all the opportunities culinary specialists have,” he said. “A culinary specialist can be a recruiter, drill sergeant, instructor or become an enlisted aide. They can work for the executive mess (at locations such as the Pentagon) or be a part of the Executive Jet Program. One of our new positions that just opened up is the White House valet. ... It’s like being an enlisted aide for the president.”
Fauska also talked about the JCTE and the career-enhancing opportunity it presents to participants. He witnessed the first iteration of the exercise in 2020, and he said it stood out to him how prepared and eager the participants were.
“I was extremely impressed with the level of training they had at their home stations,” he said.
JCTE transitioned from a two-week to a one-week event years ago. It has undergone name and venue changes and others modifications as well. Despite all that has occurred, it is still a viable contributor to the culinary training program. Fauska’s assessment is that it “increases morale and the fuel within [culinary] Soldiers so they could continue to operate.”
The 2022 JCTE will be Fauska’s last. Due to the continued threat of the coronavirus, it will not be open to the public and there have been adjustments to the competitive categories. Still, the sergeant major looks forward to an event that has everything to do with the work he has done in his farewell years.
“Without doubt, it’s an exciting time to be in food service; it really is,” said Fauska. “With a lot of the initiatives and a lot of the things we’ve worked the last two years, things are coming to [an apex] of implementation.
“All of us are looking forward to the JCTE,” he continued. “It’ll be exciting to see how the teams have prepared, and I look forward to the interactions with Soldiers when they visit. … It will be an exciting time.”
Fauska’s replacement is SGM Dominic T. DiF
atta, who is already on station.