WASHINGTON — Had it not been for his mom's cooking, Army Staff Sgt. Marc Susa said he might never have joined the Army and he never would have been named the USO-Metro Inter-Service Enlisted Aide of the Year.
As a kid, Susa relished his mom's Filipino cooking, which she prepared at home and at her restaurant. Heavy on seafood and vegetables, he calls it "comfort food."
He planned to follow in her footsteps and open his own restaurant. But first, he'd need to get his feet wet. During high school, he worked part-time at restaurants and became president of the school's home economics club.
After the 9/11 attacks happened, Susa said he wondered how he might best serve his country. When an Army recruiter told Susa that he could enlist as a cook, that sealed the deal, he said.
Susa enlisted in 2003, served in Tikrit, Iraq, from 2005 to 2006 and progressed through the ranks with a military occupational specialty of 92G Culinary Food noncommissioned officer.
In 2009, Susa said he found out about another way he could serve and continue with his culinary passion: become an enlisted aide, or EA.
The part of being an EA that was especially appealing, he said, was the mission of preparing food for a general officer and his family.
Susa's first assignment was with now-retired Army Gens. James Thurman and Charles Campbell, when they were commanders of U.S. Army Forces Command. Now he is an enlisted aide for Lt. Gen. Robert S. Ferrell, Army chief information officer, G-6.
Day In The Life
A typical day starts early, he said, arriving by 6 a.m. at the general's quarters at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., now part of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
At that early hour, Susa makes breakfast and also packs a lunch for the general to take with him to work. He then prepares dinner and leaves it in the refrigerator for reheating.
The important thing about food preparation, Susa said, is knowing the food preferences of who you support. So he gets creative and ensures there are a variety of options available.
On certain days, Ferrell entertains guests at home for official social functions, and that means finding out what each person attending likes and knowing who might have certain food allergies.
For a big social function, preparation can start the day before the event, shopping at the commissary for what will be needed. These events are often too big for Susa alone to handle, so he said he invites other EAs over to help with the preparations. In turn, he will help them when they need his assistance.
While food preparation plays a big part of an EA's duties, that's not all there is.
Throughout the day, Susa said he'll walk around inside the house and outside to see if something might be amiss: a broken window, suspicious activity, that sort of thing. Or, there might be a problem with the plumbing. Susa knows who to contact whatever the case might be.
Another very important duty, he said, is ensuring the general's uniform is squared away and all the awards and decorations are where they're supposed to be. "His appearance is a reflection on us."
Sometimes, EAs travel with the general, but that's up to the general to decide, he said. The important thing to do is to get with the general's deputy or aide-de-camp to know the general's schedule ahead of time for planning purposes.
EA of the Year
This past fall, Susa competed in -- and won -- the 13th Annual Army EA of the Year Competition. He competed against other EAs across the nation in a series of areas, from preparing a three-course meal to uniform assembly, leadership and knowledge.
Then on Nov. 19, he was named the USO-Metro Inter-Service Enlisted Aide of the Year after competing against Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard EAs.
The EAs were evaluated on leadership, household management and community service skills. They also participated in a series of events during the completion that included tours of the White House and Capitol.
The Enlisted Aide of the Year award honors the hard work that all EAs do throughout the year, not just the winners and runners up, said Stephanie Lee Krasner, special events manager of USO-Metro, which sponsors the awards banquet.
As part of the awards banquet, USO-Metro invited select EAs and culinary specialists from across the services to prepare a seven-course meal for the attendees.
Ed Manley, founder of the Military Hospitality Alliance, which sponsors the competition, added that to win, the nominees went through a rigorous process, which included being vetted by a board chaired by retired Navy Adm. James Winnefeld. The board also included the spouses of two retired four-star officers and other former EAs.
Who Can Be an EA
Soldiers from any occupational specialty who are in grades E-5 through E-9 are eligible to be EAs, Susa said. Besides that, EA candidates must have really good NCO evaluation reports, pass an enlisted review board and have letters of recommendations from the command.
Once that's accomplished, EA candidates attend an "intensive" food service training and protocol course at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence at Fort Lee, Virginia, he said.
Personality-wise, to be successful takes someone with high levels of managerial and organizational skills, initiative, honesty, flexibility and good demeanor, he said.
Once an EA completes school, there's one final requirement, he said.
The EA informally meets with a general and his spouse to determine if the EA will be a good fit for them and visa-versa. "There has to be a high level of comfort and trust," he said. "Otherwise, it won't work out."
Not Crossing the Line
There's a fine line between official duties and personal favors, and an EA has to know the difference. The latter, Susa said, are off-limits. For instance, tidying up the dining area and kitchen are official duties since those areas are where official social functions take place, but not cleaning the bedrooms or other personal spaces.
The EA is not a personal servant, he said. The EA's mission is to enable the general to focus on his or her official Army duties and not worry about potential problems at home.
Perceptions are important, and duties need to be on the up and up, he said. "You certainly don't want to get yourself or your boss in trouble."
While duties associated with being an EA are important, there are also important soldiering duties to do, he said. For instance, EAs are expected to do physical fitness training on their own and to keep up with soldiering skills.
Besides that, about 26 Army EAs from around the Military District of Washington get together for one day a month to do mandatory training, NCO leadership development and to compare notes on duties related to EAs.
Susa has participated in not only military culinary competitions, but also civilian ones. He was recently selected as one out of four finalists to compete for the title of American Culinary Federation North East Region Pastry Chef of the Year in February.
In November, he will travel to Erfurt, Germany, to join the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team for the Culinary Olympics at the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung, or International Culinary Art Exhibition, where he will compete against international civilian and military chefs. This will be his second time attending the culinary Olympics. The last time -- in 2012 -- the team won six gold and six silver medals.
Kudos From the General
"Staff Sergeant Susa's enlisted aide skills are absolutely unmatched. In fact, he's been repeatedly recognized," Ferrell said. At Fort Hood, Texas, he was captain of the III Corps culinary team and led the team to a militarywide culinary victory.
In addition, in 2010, he was selected to the U.S Army Culinary Arts Team and in 2012, he served with the USA military team and helped them win 12 gold and silver medals in the International Culinary Olympics, the general said.
"Enlisted aides perform an invaluable, official role for our Army," Ferrell added. "In Staff Sergeant Susa's case, he has also planned and executed major social events for over 3,200 total dignitaries.
"I'm especially proud that Staff Sergeant Susa takes time to mentor enlisted aides -- not only from the Army, but our fellow services as well," he said. "He is a superb example to all. On top of that, he continually volunteers in the community, and he's been involved in supporting events for our wounded warriors as well.
"What is most important to remember about Staff Sergeant Susa is that he is first and foremost an exemplary soldier. He is a consummate, professional NCO, a leader and an expert in his craft. He has also deployed, having served in Iraq, where he trained the Iraqi military on food service operations," Ferrell added.
Susa said he eventually would like to open a restaurant. He said he also wants to write a cookbook for college students that features simple ingredients and fast preparations.