FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Thousands of trainees receive their first Army meal at the 43rd Adjutant General Battalion’s dining facility each year, but food isn’t the only thing they receive during their brief breakfast, lunch and dinner visits.
While standing in line, trainees can observe the goings-on in two 110-gallon fish tanks that have seen three decades’ worth of America’s sons and daughters pass by.
The aquariums came to Fort Leonard Wood in 1991, part of a remodeling project for the 6th Battalion, 10th Infantry Brigade’s dining facility, known locally for years as “Tony’s Place.” At the time, the facility had been named Fort Leonard Wood’s DFAC of the Year and was preparing to compete at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command level.
According to an article published in the Dec. 12, 1991, edition of what was then Fort Leonard Wood’s newspaper, ESSAYONS, the aquariums — four at the time — were some of the major updates made to the facility to help secure the top spot — which it ultimately did.
In the article, then-DFAC manager Anthony Johnson — also the facility’s colloquial namesake — said he wanted to “create an atmosphere where the Soldiers could come and eat their meal, relax and then go on with their training.”
When Johnson moved to the NCO Academy DFAC a few years later, the Tony’s Place name went with him, and the fish did, too. Eventually, the fish tanks were installed at their current home at the reception battalion, according to DFAC Clerk Regina Adam, who has been caring for the 110-gallon aquariums and their aquatic residents for almost 30 years.
One tank holds cichlids — which can be aggressive at times — and the other holds more docile tropical fish — or as Adam calls them, the “nice” fish. Three decades and three locations later, the tanks have never sat empty and are still serving the purpose Johnson originally hoped they would, she said.
“The trainees come through and they look at them,” she said. “I think it helps with morale because they really like them.”
It isn’t only trainees who benefit, according to Micheal Jones, who worked at the DFAC with Adam and the fish for more than 10 years and is now responsible for quality assurance at every DFAC on the installation.
“Drill sergeants would stop in during the day and just stare at them,” he said. “You could tell it was a de-stressor in the greatest form. You’d catch them at their raw moments, and it was pretty cool.”
With nearly 17,000 trainees passing through the battalion last year alone, the fish have never been short an audience and have provided a morale boost for an entire generation of Soldiers, like Lt. Col. Brandon Boatwright, currently a Professor of Military Science and Leadership at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri, who first encountered the aquariums as a new private in 2000.
“It’s chaotic to inprocess into the Army,” Boatwright said. “You’re trying to figure out what you’re doing here and asking yourself, ‘why did I do this?’ Then you go in there and you see the fish and it’s soothing.”
Boatwright returned to the battalion in 2011, as the Alpha Company commander. With the figurative shoe on the other foot and a heavy increase in responsibilities since he had last been here, the aquariums still served the same purpose for him.
“As a company commander and now responsible for all the paperwork and timelines, every once in a while, I would just step back and watch the fish,” he said. “They give you a moment in time to stop and reflect on the fact that we are all just swimming in our own fishbowl.”
Boatwright is scheduled to return to the battalion once again in June – this time as its commander. His support of the fish and their mission will continue, he said.
“It’s full circle for me,” Boatwright said. “So much has changed, but the one thing that has remained constant is the fish tanks. It’s a wonderful and unique thing, and you don’t really realize it’s a special item until you think about it.”