CAMP HANSEN, OKINAWA, JAPAN
Story by Lance Cpl. Thomas Sheng
CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan. — U.S. Marines attached to the 12th Marines Mess Hall prepared a lunch service in preparation for an inspection by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation and Marine evaluators for the Maj. Gen. William Pendleton Thompson Hill Memorial Awards for Food Service Excellence on Camp Hansen, March 1, 2023.
In partnership with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the NRAEF presents the WPT Hill Memorial awards for Food Service Excellence annually to recognize food service operations within the Marine Corps. This series of awards recognizes individuals and units’ food service, customer service, and management. The award program is divided into four components that include active garrison, active field, reserve field mess halls, and Food Service Specialist of the Year for noncommissioned officers and staff noncommissioned officers.
“The WPT Hill award for best mess hall helps us recognize which facility performs the best in terms of food excellence after evaluation,” said Lt. Col. David Hunley, the director of food service with Marine Corps Installations Command. “Feeding Marines isn’t just about the quality of life, but it’s ensuring that Marines in garrison or in the field are fueled to fight.”
During the evaluation, representatives from the Marine Corps and the NRAEF observed different operations and procedures within the 12th Marines Mess Hall galleys. While Marines prepared for lunch service, evaluators closely paid attention to safety, sanitation, and the fundamentals of food service.
Each evaluator looked through administrative and managerial folders of paperwork. They also looked through storages and observed how the Marines prepared food.
Hunley stated that the evaluation was not a means for mess halls to prepare extravagant displays.
“We aren’t looking for streamers and flowers. This is all about preparing recipes in accordance with established guidelines and feeding Marines with nutritious meals,” said Hunley. “12th Marines Mess Hall has performed exceptionally well over the years and the command here believes they are the best if not one of the best in the Marine Corps.”
For the past two years, 12th Marines Mess Hall was unable to participate in the competition due to the challenges of COVID-19. However, since the beginning of 2022, they have won Best Mess Hall of the Quarter all four times against other mess halls within Marine Corps Installations Pacific.
“Our mess hall has been doing the work for two mess halls. We’ve been supporting garrison and UDP units ever since Camp Hansen’s second mess hall has been under renovation,” said Master Sgt. Juan Aguilera, the 12th Marines Regimental mess chief with Headquarters Battery, 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. “I’m excited this year to be nominated, because we take pride in feeding more Marines and working harder than other mess halls.”
Camp Hansen has both the 12th Marines Mess Hall and the III Marine Expeditionary Force Support Battalion Mess Hall. Since the MSB Mess Hall closed for renovations, the 12th Marines Mess Hall feeds an average of 1,200 Marines and Sailors every meal according to Aguilera. This number of meals regularly sees Marines and master labor contractors working 12 hours a day for unloading, storing, and preparing food.
Aguilera attributes all the mess hall’s successes to the work of Marines and MLC’s. The personnel of the 12th Marines Mess Hall are MLC’s who’ve worked at this location for more than 30 years. The Marines representing the mess hall, none of which are permanent personnel, come from 1st Bn, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division; Headquarters Battery, 3rd Bn, 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division; and Combat Logistics Regiment 37, 3rd Marine Logistics Group.
“We didn’t win the mess hall of the quarter four times because of fancy appearances, but rather because we focus on the brilliance in the basics,” said Aguilera. “We take pride in serving those Marines that prefer to dine with us at our mess hall.”
While mess halls Marine Corps wide must follow certain procedures, there is still leeway for change. These changes are based on input and require feedback from the consumer.
The Meal Ready to Eat, rations used by the U.S. Military for service members in the field, can also change. According to Hunley, the pizza MRE that Marines consume today are a product from consumer feedback and request. His goal is to garner support from more Marines who want to eat at the mess hall not because they must, but because they want to.
“The sole factor that drives food service is patron acceptability and how we improve based off what the Marine desires,” said Hunley. “I’d love to bring even more Marines to the mess hall, but I need feedback from Marines to give them a dining experience they want.”
According to Hunley, there are more changes coming to food service and to Marines who need them. He briefly mentioned a specialized MRE that is more compact but is still able to deliver the number of calories a Marine would need in a day. Focus groups are also regularly organized within food service to discuss future changes to ensure every Marine’s request is heard.
The winners of the WPT Hill Award will be announced around April after each evaluation is completed. For mess halls across the Marine Corps to continue succeeding, frequent visitors of mess halls must continue to give feedback for improvements.