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What's Cooking at the Pentagon?


The Pentagon’s television channel, aimed at the U.S. military community, normally broadcasts military news and helpful announcements about military rules and benefits. The station has programs like “Freedom Journal Iraq” and “Air Force News,” and short segments on such subjects as how soldiers deployed overseas can vote in U.S. elections. But The Pentagon Channel recently launched a new program that is well outside its normal fare.

It’s a cooking show, hosted by an enthusiastic Sergeant First Class named Brad Turner, who sprinkles his commentary with phrases like “Hoo Wee!” and “Whoo!” as he urges his troops on to culinary heights.

“I teach them to love what they do, and then to share it,” Sergeant Turner says. “Share your love, share your food.”

“The Grill Sergeants” is a play on words. In the military, “drill” sergeants train new recruits and are stereotyped as tough task masters. In the movie “Full Metal Jacket,” Drill Sergeant Hartman barks at his troops, “From now on, you will speak only when spoken to. Do you maggots understand that?” And the recruits answer, “Sir, yes sir!”

A Culinary Morale Boost

But that’s not ‘Grill’ Sergeant Turner’s approach. “Actually, no,” he says. “It is a derivative from the drill sergeant in that we’re instructing. For cooking, it’s not just that I want to teach you to chop onions or sauté or julienne. What do you do after you learn all the basics? Just doing what you love, share that love. Share your love, share your food.”

Still, Sergeant Turner’s show, broadcast from his teaching kitchen at Fort Lee, Virginia, has its military cadence, although peppered with more humor than your average drill sergeant. In his premier episode, cooking a holiday Turkey, he described himself as being “on the front line” in “the battle of Turkey Hill” fighting against hunger among the troops.

And for him, “Basic Training” doesn’t involve long distance running and climbing over obstacle courses, rather, he tells his audience, “I’m about to take all of these basic ingredients and turn them into one united effort in the fight against hunger.” He consoles the troops, “Sometimes the battle gets a little intense, but don’t worry about it.”

Giving out samples of his New Orleans-style stew called "gumbo" in a Pentagon hallway recently, Sergeant Turner said, for him, teaching soldiers to cook is largely about having fun. But he says it has a serious side, too.

“When you get home,” he says, “one of the easiest ways to start reintegrating yourself into the family is take the kids and just cook with them. Set a table and sit down and actually eyeball them, talk to them. Slow down all the other craziness and the madness that you’ve been dealing with in Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere else you’ve been, and take some time just to cook.”

The sergeant says that when he was an operational unit leader he also used his cooking skills to help bring his troops together. “On Sundays,” he recalls, “I would invite my soldiers over to come and eat. And they would come faithfully. And it builds the camaraderie, the esprit de corps. As a leader, they would just about follow me anywhere.”

He says troops in the field particularly appreciate it if the cook makes a little extra effort, especially if they only have the ingredients from combat meals and a few spices to work with. “The troops really love it,” he says. “And they feel it when you put that kind of effort into it. They come back going, ‘Who made that soup?’ or ‘Who made that gumbo?’ And there’s just no feeling like it.”

The reactions among troops at the Pentagon that day seem to bear out what Sergeant Turner said. The comments were mostly words like, “excellent,” “wonderful” and “hits the spot!” But there’s always at least one naysayer in the crowd. This time, it was Sergeant First Class Arnette Fuller, who said “It’s not as good as mine!” But she acknowledged the gumbo wasn’t too bad, either.

In spite of that less than enthusiastic review, "The Grill Sergeant," Brad Turner, will forge ahead through the flak, fighting in the trenches, keeping the fire going, and teaching the U.S. military to cook.

“Sir, yes sir!”

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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