REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--For 27 years, Mattie Patton has served Soldiers. Come Aug. 31, her service will no longer be needed.

She and the food service staff at the Dining Facility will stop providing meals to the Arsenal’s Soldiers when the facility closes at the end of August. The Dining Facility, which has been part of the Redstone landscape since the 1950s, is a casualty of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure recommendations.

Even as Redstone welcomes a four-star command, a recruiting brigade and a host of new BRAC-related and non-BRAC-related neighbors, it is losing its large contingent of young Soldiers who receive advanced individual training at the Ordnance Munitions and Electronic Maintenance School. And with that loss also goes some of the basic services provided to troops, such as the dining facility.

“We’ve known this was going to happen since BRAC was announced,” Hal Weatherman, the Garrison’s installation food program manager, said. “But it was something many of our employees just didn’t want to believe.

“And even though they knew it was going to close, their dedication to serving and taking care of Soldiers never stopped. We will still provide the best service until the very last Soldier comes through the door.”

At the peak of its business, the Dining Facility, located in building 3443 on Aerobee Road near Gate 10, served 500,000 meals a year and had 63 employees, who are employed through a contract with K&K;Food Services.

Starting in March of this year, the numbers have been dropping as OMEMS has moved segments of its training courses. As recently as March, the staff of 55 employees was providing 50,000 meals a month. In June, only 16,400 meals were served.

Weatherman has been working the budget to reflect the monthly drawdown of young Soldiers at Redstone, cutting back on food supplies. At the end of June, the Dining Facility’s contractor sent out layoff notices that took the staff down to 30. Those remaining will work through the August closing, and then another month to help clean and dismantle a Garrison icon that has often been a showcase to visiting dignitaries and local community leaders of the services provided to Soldiers at Redstone.

“We have several Army culinary arts trophies from competitions where judges came in and judged our facility against Army facilities worldwide. We’ve been in the top five dining facilities in the Southeast region in the large category several times,” said Dan Tyree, the K&K;dining facility manager, whose nearly 40 years in the food industry service includes military service and 12 years at the Dining Facility.

At the end of September, the Dining Facility and its inventory will be turned over to the Directorate of Public Works. The building will be renovated for future use.
In the early years of its long history at Redstone, troop dining actually consisted of five to seven dining facilities on post. In 2004, the current Dining Facility was built right next door to the original main facility for $7.5 million. Its 21,000 square feet were designed with troops in mind, providing state-of-the-art food preparation areas and equipment, a well-designed cafeteria-style food service area, and ample dining space to feed up to 500 Soldiers every hour.

“The professional staff has a daily direct effect on Soldiers’ morale and duty performance,” Mike Durham, chief of Plans and Operations for the Garrison, said. “All their efforts are focused on preparing the best food and service for the Soldiers. The staff takes great pride in providing this food service -- greeting each Soldier with a smile on their face, and hoping to receive a smile or ‘thank you’ in return.”

Three times a day during the week, and twice a day on weekends, Soldiers have made their way to the Dining Facility. The facility’s staff starts their day at 4 a.m. and end their work at 10 p.m.

On special occasions, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Army birthday, retirees were invited to join Soldiers for holiday meals. The facility also supported community special events involving Redstone, and provided food services for local Guard and Reserve units as well as Redstone emergency services workers, international military students, Command and General Staff College students, and Boy Scout and JROTC groups.

But it was the young Soldiers that the Dining Facility staff enjoyed the most.

“This is one of the best jobs in the Army,” said Weatherman, who has 24 years of service with the Dining Facility. “We have the Soldiers three times a day to take care of them. It can be a hard job. But it’s also a rewarding job 365 days a year.”

Those 365 days a year have included some trying times, such as the Thanksgiving 2003 electrical fire at the old dining facility that caused the staff to move its traditional Thanksgiving meal to the Sparkman Center cafeteria. Or the April 27 tornado, when the Dining Facility was able to serve meals despite issues with electrical power.

“We’re never closed. We have seriously dedicated employees who make it through snow, ice and all kinds of bad weather to feed the troops. We’ve never missed a mission,” Weatherman said. “Our dedicated work force makes us look good.”

“Our job has been taking care of the privates,” Tyree added. “They are our VIPs.”

Those privates " between the ages of 18 and 29 " have enjoyed the best full food service the Army has to offer at the Dining Facility, which is managed in line with Army regulations. But along with serving up meals, the staff also serves up care and concern.

“You see Soldiers come and go. They start out here as privates. Then, they come back and you can see how they’ve climbed all the way to sergeant major,” said employee Patton, one of nine Dining Facility workers with more than 25 years of service.

“They will seek you out when they come here and say ‘Do you remember me?’”
Employee JoAnn Lewis often encourages Soldiers to stay in touch with their families.

“I will ask them: ‘When was the last time they talked to their families?’” she said. “I will ask them ‘You’re going to call them this weekend, right?’”

Lewis has spent 24 years serving Soldiers at the Dining Facility.

“We will be proud of our work here until the very last day. We will love and support these Soldiers until they lock us out the door,” she said.

“But I’m not sad. When one door closes, another one opens. You just have to trust in the Lord. He’ll lead. My prayers are for other people anyway and for the Soldiers, not for me.”