HI, UNITED STATES
Story by Staff Sgt. Alan Brutus
According to Pfc. George Coneo, a culinary specialist assigned to 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team “Broncos”, 25th Infantry Division, working in an experimental lab making media, a substance which cells can grow inside of, and preparing a stuffed pepper in the kitchen are in many ways the same.
“Just like cooking food, when making media there are certain temperatures that have to be hit, there is a certain order to add ingredients or chemicals in, there is only a certain amount of time that both food and media can be exposed to air and room temperature,” he explained.
Growing up in a blue-collar home in suburban New Jersey, Coneo spent his childhood much like most children, attending school and playing sports until he eventually graduated high school and decided to stay in New Jersey to attend college at Rowan University.
Earning his bachelor’s degree in biology in 2015, Coneo moved straight into the workforce where he worked at a biotech company as a lab technician making synthetic DNA for pharmaceutical companies to use for various experiments.
“After about a year, I jumped ship to a pharmaceutical company, also as a lab technician, but this time around I was working in research and development where I’d execute small scale experiments under the supervision of a Ph.D.,” Coneo said.
This wasn’t the last career move Coneo made in his short time as a working adult.
In January 2020, Coneo signed his final paperwork and prepared to ship to Basic Combat Training where in nine short weeks he graduated and was officially a Soldier in the United States Army. He then traveled to Fort Lee, Va. for Advanced Individual Training where he would be trained as a culinary specialist despite his background in biology and lab work.
“At the time of enlistment, culinary specialist was one of the jobs offering the student loan repayment program,” he said. “I also figured it’d be a safe job because it’s not a front lines type of job.”
Even with a family history of military service, Coneo himself had not considered enlisting in the Army until he was 27-years old, when his best friend, college roommate, and now first lieutenant in the New Jersey Army National Guard showed him how he too could benefit from military service even though it meant taking a significant decrease in pay from his current civilian employment.
“The student loan repayment program and the VA Home Loan is what really got me,” he said. “Calculating it all out, it puts me light years ahead of where I’d be if I stayed a civilian and paid back my loans and bought a house with a regular mortgage loan.”
Being older than most of the junior Soldiers in some ways has made being in the Army more difficult for Pfc. Coneo. He explained he has his fair share of rough days, no different than anyone else, but always finds a way to get through them.
“It takes a lot of humility to throw out everything you’ve accomplished academically and career wise,” he said. “However, I attended basic training with someone who has a Ph.D. in Pharmacology, so if he can sit there and take the heat then I certainly have no excuse to want to turn back.”
With his first duty station being in Hawaii as a Bronco, Coneo is already using his previous life experiences as a benefit to the entire Bronco Café team.
This year, he was selected as part of the team representing the Broncos, as well as the entire 25th Infantry Division, in the 53rd Annual Department of the Army Philip A. Connelly competition in which the best dining facilities compete to show their excellence in all aspects of food service.
He was also selected to compete in the Brigade Chef of the Quarter competition which recognizes individual excellence in both food service and basic Soldier knowledge and skills.
With January fast approaching and Coneo having been in the Army for almost an entire year, he admires what the career change from lab technician to Soldier has brought to him but recognizes that it isn’t a permanent change.
“I plan on going back to the civilian sector,” he said. “I absolutely love my old line of work and I think the military has been a great experience thus far but I think one contract is enough for me.”