By T. Anthony BellMarch 21, 2013
FORT LEE, Va. (March 21, 2013) -- The anticipation among the Fort Hood, Texas, faithful was something akin to the announcement of a long-shot, at-large bid to the NCAA's "March Madness" basketball tourney.
There they sat -- some with their hands tightly clasped, elbows interlocked, eyes cast downward and heads bobbing to the tune of prayers. Holding lofty expectations and a reserved demeanor, the team awaited a tension-filled climax to the 38th Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event Awards Ceremony Friday at the Lee Theater.
For the 20 or so Soldiers clad in dress uniforms and seated in the middle of the auditorium, the pressured-filled moments would only be sated by the announcement of the event's most coveted prize -- the Culinary Team of the Year trophy, a goal and obsession that devoured every morsel of time for the last four months. It was a fate that had the power to either spring them to life in a fit of joy or sink into a state of disappointment.
Three hundred or so military members, their supporters and an assortment of culinary fans eagerly awaited the moment in the dimly-lit auditorium as well. The Fort Hood and Fort Stewart, Ga., teams had set the stage for the drama during the course of the two-week event that featured 503 entries from more than 200 competitors. Hood led the gold medal count with 13. Stewart tallied 11.
Spc. Colin Mullins, a Hood team member, was seated next to team manager Sgt. 1st Class Zamain Brown during the ceremony. The veteran and young Soldier typified the mood of the team, both showing signs of nail-biting anxiousness as the second-place team was announced.
"... and the runner up for the team competition is Fort Stewart ...," the master of ceremonies proclaimed. Mullins immediately turned to Brown with a wide-eyed look that was a mix of anticipation and astonishment. Brown reciprocated. Could it be true? Could the installation that calls itself the "The Great Place" win the top award after a 28-year drought and competing in only its second competition in the last six years?
The Hood team was careful not to get ahead of itself. Team Hawaii, an assortment of military members from different services, was a threat as well as Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. The MC composed himself for the final announcement. Elongating the sentence for dramatic effect, he succinctly breathed words that would endear themselves to some and become a source of disappointment for others.
"... the winner is …. Fort Hood!"
Mullins, standing a stout 6-foot, 1-inches,tall, said afterward that a sense of heaviness preceded the moments before the announcement, and a sudden rush of relief and gratification followed.
"I don't even know how to put into words how nervous I was," he said. "As soon as it happened, we just started flying. It was like being 10 pounds and flying up."
The section of the auditorium where the Hood team sat definitely seemed lighter after the presentation. Needless to say, tears ran, hands slapped, backs were patted and shoulders hugged. It was bliss reminiscent of Soldiers returning from a combat tour, walking off the plane into the outstretched arms of emotional family members.
Moments later, team members gathered and made their way to the stage with chests swelled and heads held high but cloaked with a sense of humility. Quartermaster General Col. John E. O'Neil IV and his top enlisted Soldier, Command Sgt. Major Wendy Robinson, presented the awards. The team posed for pictures. Some team members beamed, a group of five embraced and one knelt and wept -- all telling signs this group of culinarians were bonded by the experience of preparing and competing in the MCACTE.
Brown, struggling to contain his own emotions, spoke in fragments about the keys to victory.
"Hard work," he said. "A lot of time; late nights, weekends; competitive training; constantly training; doing it over and over again; getting critiqued by your team members, having tough skin and being able to deal with what they say to you; it was hard work."
The Hood team, which finished third in last year's competition that Stewart won, edged out the runners-up by less than a point. A win in the Student Team Skills Competition highlighted the team's performance. In addition, three members were named to the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team. Furthermore, 10 of the 15 team members were not only new to the team but new to the Army. Brown was prideful about his young guns.
"I'm especially happy for the young guys," said Brown, a 20-year Soldier who's never been part of an installation-winning team. "A lot of teams try to put in guys who they know are good. We actually trained privates right out of AIT to come in here and do great things. At the end of the day, that's what makes me feel good."
The Stewart team wasn't feeling too shabby either. It earned wins in the Nutritional Hot Foods Challenge and Military Hot Kitchen Competition categories, and one of its junior Soldiers, Spc. Mikalia Jules, captured the Armed Forces Junior Chef of the Year title. She also was named to the USACAT. Team manager Master Sgt. Verna Bellamy said she is proud of her team and happy for the Hood team.
"I'm not disappointed," she said. "They (the Hood team) came out and did what they had to do and made it happen. The best team won."
Inasmuch drama that was present in this year's competition, it was almost scratched due to budget constraints. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charles H. Talley Jr., the event's coordinator, said considering the obstacles, the event went off quite well.
"We're looking forward to next year," he said.
Brown is also looking forward. He said he now has an obligation to ensure team members take what they've learned at the competition back to The Great Place.
"That's the whole thing right there," he said, "taking it back to the great place, going into the DFACs and passing the knowledge down. We have an enhancement program on our base that is really supported by the command. They really push hard for training. We get Soldiers in from all over the post for two weeks and take what they learned back to their DFACs."