Marines on the Waterfront: From Hobby to Career

Photo By Cpl. Careaf Henson | U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Michael D. Watts, mess chief, with 2nd Battalion 2nd Marine Division, competes in a cooking competition during Marine Week in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 7, 2018. Marines, local chefs and students from Johnson and Wales University participate in a culinary competition using items from MREs during Marine Week Charlotte. Marine Week Charlotte is an opportunity for the people of the greater Charlotte area to meet Marines and learn about the Marine Corps’ history, traditions and value to the nation.  

NAVAL SUPPORT ACTIVITY HAMPTON ROADS, Va.— Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are commonly considered an aspect of the American dream. However, according to Deloitte studies, only 13 percent of Americans are passionate about their career. Gunnery Sgt. Michael D. Watts, a food service specialist and acting enlisted aid for the commander of Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic (FMFLANT), Marine Forces Command (MARFORCOM), Marine Forces Northern Command (MARFOR NORTHCOM), has found himself to be part of the few who turned a hobby into a profession he enjoys.

Watts grew up in the metropolitan suburb of Salt Lake City known as Sandy, Utah. He was the eldest of five boys, each born with a disability. Watts had to take on a parental role prematurely in order to take care of his siblings throughout his youth.

“I developed a lot of responsibility and maturity at a young age,” Watts continued, “I had to grow up faster, being the oldest and having a family with many disabilities, but that’s life. It developed a lot of who I am.”

At 14 years old, and an ever-growing sense of responsibility, Watts began to work in a Chinese restaurant called Hong Kong Cafe. He was quickly promoted to line cook and discovered a newfound passion. Due to caretaking having such an influence on his life, cooking felt like second nature.

“When I served food to people, I enjoyed the satisfaction of giving to others,” Watts reflected, “I applied to put a little extra money in my pocket but it turned out I genuinely loved my job.”

While working at Hong Kong Cafe and continuing to help his family, Watts played the drums in his free time. Music became an outlet for freedom and expression. After immense practice he earned a scholarship to play in the University of Utah’s drumline. Watts was excited for the new opportunity, but it wouldn’t give him the sense of purpose he was looking for outside his routine of work, family, and school. After constantly putting others first, he decided to talk to a local U.S. Marine Corps recruiter about playing for the Marine Corps Band in hopes to broaden his horizons beyond his hometown.

“The auditions were extremely challenging…” Watts claimed, “…you were expected to take a sheet of music paper you have never played before and perform it perfectly! I realized it wasn’t going to work out, but my recruiter saw potential in me. I told him if I can’t be in the Marine Corps Band then I will join as a cook. He thought I was crazy because I had a very high General Technical composite score, allowing me to get any job I wanted. However, my reasoning was simple, I would rather choose a job I already know and am confident I can excel in.”

Watts enlisted in the spring of March 2005 from recruiting station Salt Lake City, Utah. After three months at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, he earned the title of a United States Marine. He continued through his training pipeline until reaching the schoolhouse for his military occupation specialty (MOS) in Fort Lee, Virginia. Watts was unsure of what to expect as a food service specialist, but he was convinced that this was the position for him. He had no idea how right he was.

“Once people saw how well I could cook and manage my time, they gave me more responsibilities such as teaching and being a chief cook while I was a Corporal,” Watts stated, “I also led operations in the field which is a Sergeant and Staff Sergeant billet. It was a lot to handle for a young Marine. After being constantly put in higher positions, I began to realize I excelled at my job.”

Watts was put in many roles that tested his limits and critical thinking ability. Cooking may have come easy to him, but the amount of problem solving he had to overcome never ceased.

“I did two tours in Iraq between 2006-2008, where I did patrols and made sure the Marines were fed to keep marching.” Watts recalled, “Using the field equipment was a challenge within itself. I had to make sure if I had to cook a meal on a rock in the desert, I would be able to do it. We (food service specialists) are the only source of fuel to keep the Marine Corps going. Without food how could we muster up the energy to fight?”

Food service specialists duties within the Marine Corps go beyond cooking and cleaning within a chow hall. They are responsible for ordering supplies from contracted dealers, storing supplies required for consumption, and keeping detailed records of inventory. Similarly to other MOS’s in the Marine Corps, these tasks accumulate and can risk life and death if not handled earnestly.

“In Bridgeport, California, we do cold weather training.” Watts stated, “ I remember one time we had a limited supply of water containers that allowed the Marines to boil snow and create clean water to drink. I began brainstorming and realized the tray ration heating systems in the kitchen may be an adequate substitute. I sent the heating systems out there and taught the Marines how to use it. I ended up getting scolded because I was using our systems in ways they were not designed for, but in the end the Marines were hydrated, and we met mission intent.”

His hard work and dedication to troop welfare and mission accomplishment created endless opportunities for Watts. He traveled from Greece to the Philippines, to Romania, and various other nations. The Marine Corps tested his capabilities, and Watts was never one to back down.

“The biggest highlight of my career has been competing for the Marine Corps culinary team.” Watts recollected, “I was asked to go to the schoolhouse to teach and the leadership there asked me if I could build sculptures. I told them, ‘Well I’ve made gingerbread houses before’ and they asked me to make the Leaning Tower of Pisa from chocolate. My colleagues were impressed by my progress and said they wanted to submit me for 2019 Pastry Chef of the year which was in two weeks!”

With very little notice, Watts had to prepare himself to compete in the 44th Annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise (JCTE) at Fort Lee, Virginia. He and eight other Marines represented the Marine Corps team competing against 200 other military chefs in the largest American Culinary Federation-sanctioned competition in North America. After six days of cooking, judging, and critiques, the Marine Corps team won the event’s illustrious Team of The Year title for the first time in history and Watts finished strong with two silver medals.

Following the JCTE, Watts continued teaching Marines at the food service specialist Marine Detachment. He took pride in molding the minds of junior Marines, eager to learn and grow, just like him many years ago. He took the responsibility seriously and continued to go above the call of duty.

“I would always ask my Marines one question…” Watts continued, “Practice makes, what? Is anyone perfect? Practice makes improvement. When you become better at something, opportunities will arise, and more experience will come. That’s how you become an expert, through experience.”

His altruism showcased as he taught not only the food service specialist curriculum, but how the Marine Corps pushed its Marines resiliency past what was anticipated. If a Marine’s character is underprepared, they will needlessly struggle in the heat of a forward operating unit. Watt’s stories of his own personal growth and first hand hardships intermixed with studies had stirred his students to embrace their lessons, causing them to excel to their full potential before ever arriving at their first duty station. These methods were recognized by his peers and led him to a new opportunity in his Marine Corps career, becoming an enlisted aide. Marines assigned to the Marine Corps Enlisted Aide Program are volunteers hand selected at the discretion by the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

“The food service community looks at personnel that can be in prestigious positions such as a chef for the Secretary of the Navy and the enlisted aide program,” Watts stated, “If you are seen doing extraordinary things then they will personally recommend you. There is a process where you can apply for these positions but one day the community just came up to me and asked.”

Due to the high levels of visibility associated with this program, only Marines who demonstrate exceptional levels of professionalism and maturity are considered for assignment. Selected Marines work alongside U.S. military generals nominated by the Liberty of Congress. Watts was selected for the program and is now the enlisted aid for Lt. Gen. Brian W. Cavanaugh, the commander of FMFLANT, MARFORCOM, MARFOR NORTHCOM. It was a dramatic career shift, adapting from a well-recognized chef to the general’s confidant.

“I manage the historical home the commander lives in and fill any requests or support the commander needs.” Watts claimed, “I am a resource to make sure he is taken care of so he can keep fighting. He is in charge of our unit and units underneath it. It is a lot of responsibility, but I take pride in working for someone who takes care of the Marines underneath him.”

Watts has reached 17 years in the Marine Corps. Throughout the years, he has accomplished an abundance of personal growth and developed a new goal of running his own pastry shop one day. Although he doesn’t know whether he wishes to proceed with his military career, he remains grateful for enlisting back in 2005.

Watts remarks, “If you invest in yourself and challenge yourself, you will give back to the community, whether it’s the Marine Corps’ or your peers; seek self-improvement and it will give back to others.”

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