A Thanksgiving Aboard the USS Forrest Sherman

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(Photo by Drew F. Lawrence/Military.com)

Pier 6 sits where the Elizabeth River and Chesapeake Bay meet at the largest Navy complex in the world – Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia.

It’s Monday, windy and cold. Sailors, civilian contractors and dockworkers, or stevedores as they’re called on Pier 6, hurry to unload three enormous food trucks filled with hundreds and hundreds of pounds of Thanksgiving provisions for the USS Forrest Sherman, a destroyer that’s docked at Norfolk during the holiday.

Soon, an assembly line for the food forms; fruits, veggies, potatoes, pies and whole turkeys make their way from the truck to the deck and down into the belly of the ship, where they will sit, chilled, until they head to the galley for preparation.

On this episode, we’ll take a look at that tradition, the preparation for it and what it means to the sailors on the ship for Thanksgiving. Since antiquity, one way to learn about a military and its personnel has been through their stomachs, what they’re being fed and how much – and this year – with all of the uncertainty the world has to offer, troops are getting a lot to eat this Thanksgiving.

Main Topics

  • Drew F. Lawrence visits Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, and the USS Forrest Sherman to see sailors prepare for Thanksgiving.
  • Interviews with Defense Logistics Agency personnel on how much food has been sent to troops at home and abroad.

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Transcript:

SPEAKERS

Michael Hong, CS3 Jacob Weed, Robbin Durie, Drew F. Lawrence, Robin Whaley, IT1 Jacob Hruska, Lt. Melissa Jock, Commander Jorge Roldan, CS3 Lopez Miller

Drew F. Lawrence

Pier 6 sits where the Elizabeth River and Chesapeake Bay meet at the largest navy complex in the world – Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. It’s Monday, windy and cold. Sailors, civilian contractors and dock workers, or stevedors as they’re called on Pier 6 hurry to unload three enormous food trucks filled with hundreds and hundreds of pounds of Thanksgiving provisions for the USS Forrest Sherman, a destroyer that’s docked at Norfolk during the holiday. Soon an assembly line for the food forms; fruits, veggies, potatoes, pies, whole turkeys make their way from the truck, to the deck and down into the belly of the ship where they will sit, chilled, until they head to the galley for preparation.

Lt. Melissa Jock

There's a hatch actually right behind the quarterdeck there that goes straight down to basically the galley level and then down one more to the reefer. So they'll just make a line and it all makes its way down there.

Drew F. Lawrence

That’s Lieutenant Melissa Jock, she’s the supply officer, or SUPPO for the ship and in charge of making the impending Thanksgiving meal happen for about a quarter of the total crew – so about 75 sailors – stuck with taking care of the ship on the holiday while it's docked. As she’s telling me about the unloading process, something happens – something that often happens in the mornings on a military installation.

Lt. Melissa Jock

...dairy so they all come in different, different times. They normally try to come at the same...ope, hold on.

Drew F. Lawrence

The sailors – and even some of the dock workers – snap to attention and render a salute to the American flag emerging from the top of the ship as the Star-Spangled Banner plays across the piers. And when three whistles blow – WHISTLE WHISTLE WHISTLE – the crew gets back to work.

Lt. Melissa Jock

So yeah, so normally it's like three or four trucks. It just depends on what we're getting. But it's pretty much an average that...

Drew F. Lawrence

In the military, the mission never stops, or at least, not for long. There are times where you make room for tradition, like dropping what you’re doing and saluting the colors in the morning. Thanksgiving is no different, it is a holiday steeped in tradition for the military and the sailors on the USS Sherman are some of thousands of troops away from their families on a day that would normally be spent at home with them. On this episode, we’ll take a look at that tradition, the preparation for it and what it means to the sailors on the ship for Thanksgiving. Since antiquity, one way to learn about a military and its personnel is through their stomachs, what they’re being fed and by how much – and this year – with all of the uncertainty the world has to offer, troops are getting a lot to eat this Thanksgiving. What does that mean? And what might that tell us? For Military.com, my name is Drew Lawrence – and this is a special episode of Fire Watch. Despite no major U.S. wars, some troops are away from home more than they were since the height of the global war on terror. For example, Military.com reported that the Army had roughly 120,000 soldiers abroad as of April this year. In 2008, during the height of GWOT, the entire Defense Department had roughly 187,900 troops total deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Those numbers began to dwindle, and now that the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan, you’d think that the operation tempo – as the military calls its deployment and training rates – has slowed down. But with emerging threats in the Pacific, Eastern Europe and now again, the Middle East after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel last month drawing U.S. assets into the region on stability missions, the opposite appears true for service members away from home during the holidays. I talked to some subject matter experts at the Defense Logistics Agency, the element in charge of getting those holiday meals, and really all meals, to troops at home and abroad. Robin Whaley, who is the division chief in charge troop subsistence support abroad, told me this last week: US troops are no longer in Afghanistan, for example, but troops are still being deployed around the world all the time. They're doing different things than maybe they were doing five or 10 years ago. Do you see any difference? You know, do you see that there's more food going out? That there's less food going out? Do you see a difference in where this food is going? Or how it's received?

Robin Whaley

No, I believe probably food consumption is about the same because no matter where you are or how many troops you have, you're going to eat three meals a day. So I would say that the food consumption is still the same. And then given all of the world events there may be an increase, but I would say it's basically the same.

Drew F. Lawrence

Whaley has been with DLA for over 30 years and her prediction was right. See, every year, DLA releases how many turkeys they send out, pies, cakes and pounds of ham and beef and sweet potatoes. That also includes how many gallons of egg nog and surprisingly, shrimp, which saw some of its lowest numbers last year – take that however you’d like. But here’s the thing. This year, the numbers that came out for 2023 were astronomically more than any time in the previous five years. Here are some highlights, based on my number crunching: DLA delivered 19,790 more whole turkeys to troops than it did last year with a total of 28,945. This is by far the most turkey DLA has delivered since 2018. Beef numbers are also way up with poundage breaking into the 100,000s for the first time since at least 2017. That’s an increase in 104,717 pounds of beef, or 255% increase since last year. Ham and shrimp numbers have been more than doubled since last year. Again, this is the most amount of ham since 2017. Sweet potatoes, pie and cakes are down by about half each, but the numbers that have increased have increased A LOT. Now, DLA cautioned us about looking too hard at these numbers and hoping for conclusions. For example, troops apparently requested 23,461 gallons of egg nog in 2021. That’s like 3x as much egg nog that’s ever been requested – can we make any assumptions about that? Maybe troops were thirstier that year, I don’t know. But the point is that more troops deployed abroad means that more food is likely requested. And according to DLA, recent world events have directly contributed to the increase in holiday food requested. A few days after my interview with Whaley, she sent a statement that said, in part, “This year DLA Troop Support received increased requirements for holiday support due to several unplanned real world events.” I asked DLA spokesperson Michael Hong if the real world events referenced in her statement were related to the ongoing Israel Hamas war that began last month.

Michael Hong

Correct. President Biden has reiterated, reiterated our ironclad support of Israel and so Israel support has affected those numbers.

Drew F. Lawrence

Holidays always bring that temperature check to light. Why are troops away from home and their families? What are they doing? Where are they? Each year, the Defense Department releases photos of troops eating turkey meals and leaders serving up pies in bases from Boise, Idaho to Syria. The experts at DLA told me that efforts to get those meals to galleys and dining facilities around the world starts months in advance when units begin requesting how much food they want for the holidays. Many troops that DLA support are deployed abroad. In fact, sailors on the USS Forrest Sherman were underway in the Mediterranean last year when Thanksgiving rolled around. Now, some of those sailors are in port stateside and Robbin Durie, who is in charge of stateside subsistence deliveries at DLA understands how that can be sometimes even more difficult. And I guess one question with that is what do you hope for for your customers when they receive the shipments that you put together? And what I mean by that is, you're specifically talking about troops that are here stateside, they're in training, they're at the USS Forrest Sherman there because someone needs to be on the ship at all times. Right, you know, what do you hope for them when they get their Thanksgiving meal and how they feel?

Robbin Durie

Right? Well, I want them to get that sense of comfort. And so you know, some people might have a perception, oh, it's food, you know, it's very easy to buy. How important really is it? But it's very important. You don't think about how comforting it really is to have turkey on Thanksgiving, those memories that it brings back. So I want those folks that serve our country to have that feeling of comfort if they're not able to be with their loved ones at the holiday time.

Drew F. Lawrence

And that’s what much of the holiday success for the military comes down to: the prep, the care and the camaraderie. Back at the Forrest Sherman, Lieutenant Jock gave me a tour of the galley, freezer and other parts of the ship as she explained a bit more about the planning. We made our way down through the labyrinth of doors and ladders and ended up in the mess deck where sailors were chatting, and Jock explained a bit more about the planning. How far in advance do you plan for Thanksgiving?

Lt. Melissa Jock

We had to put our food order in three weeks in advance. So we ordered it at like the beginning of the month. And then it's coming today. So that was like 20 days. I think we ordered it on Halloween. October 31st. So that was three weeks out. That's just standard like it's mandatory. Otherwise you're not getting turkeys.

Drew F. Lawrence

I also spoke to one of the culinary specialist on the ship Jacob Weed,, and it was hard not to be enthused by his excitement in making a holiday meal happen with his friends and for his friends this Thanksgiving.

CS3 Jacob Weed

I mean, like we're getting chops, like like ASAP like we're getting a five pound bag of onions, peppers, carrots, celery if we have it so we can start mirepoix. We're gonna put that in the turkey. And basically everybody starts a cutting board up, get some music on the speaker. There's like a five minute argument about what music we're gonna listen to then go ahead and bump to music, get into it and get in the group basically get in the jam. We did apple pie, pumpkin, sweet potato pecan. And then we have two really talented fruit carvers...who can turn...Yeah, they do like these swans out of apples, birds and stuff.

Drew F. Lawrence

Last year you said you were underway, right? What's the big difference between prep from last year, and prep for this year not being underway.

CS3 Jacob Weed

The ship doesn't move, which makes cooking 10 times easier. That is easily the best difference possible, the fact that you know we're not we're not moving, we don't have to worry about securing stuff for sea, we don't have to get ropes from the BMs to go tie up our roasting pans full of potatoes. They're not flying, nobody's getting hit with flying tomatoes and onions, which is good. And we're using knives obviously, you know, so I would say not moving. But in terms of volume and in terms of like output it's going to be the exact same.

Drew F. Lawrence

Military.com spoke to several other troops on the USS Forrest Sherman, who all offered a pretty succinct thread of what it was like to spend Thanksgiving on a ship stateside and away from your family: it sucks, but if you have a good meal, spend some time with your friends and enjoy the holiday spirit where you can, it sucks a lot less.

CS3 Lopez Miller

It's not easy. But they everybody no matter who you are, they tell you if you don't have anywhere to go, go to the ship. Because nobody wants to be here.

Drew F. Lawrence

That’s culinary specialist third class Lopez Miller, stacking Thanksgiving provisions as they make their way down into the refrigerator freezer, or reefer as its called.

CS3 Lopez Miller

So the sense that when we're together, it sucks, but...but everyone sucks together. It makes it a little less bad.

Drew F. Lawrence

And here's information systems technician 1st class Jacob Hruska who’s been in the Navy for about 9 years and had some advice for new service memebrs who may not be used to spending time away from home on the holidays

IT1 Jacob Hruska

Biggest thing is just offering if, if we're lucky enough to be in port, offering them that chance of you know, hey, the base is doing this for you guys. If you don't feel like that, my house is open. But probably the most important thing is just letting them know, like, 'Hey, you're not with your family. Call them if you can. But make sure whatever you can find something to do, don't be alone during the holidays, because it just it gets rough when you're not used to it.'

Drew F. Lawrence

And to make things a bit more bearable, leadership on the USS Forrest Sherman allowed family members to accompany those 75 or so sailors charged with taking care of the ship on Thanksgiving to join them for the meal – a special addition to the holiday tradition that makes it a bit better.

Commander Jorge Roldan

We really understand that, you know, not everyone's going to be able to travel home. This might be some, some of our sailors first time really kind of being separated from family. And so whatever effort we can make, whether it's, you know, making that meal just a little bit more special. Trying to make sure that we don't do a lot of you know, kind of...

Drew F. Lawrence

Here’s commander Jorge Rodan, the executive officer for the ship. And I asked him if he and other leadership would be coming in to visit their sailors this Thanksgiving.

Commander Jorge Roldan

Yeah, Captain and I were just discussing it this morning. You know, I asked the team to put together maybe like a special plan of the day with the holiday menu. And once we finalize the timeline for Thursday, I know myself, I'm gonna bring my wife and my son on board. Captain's gonna bring his daughters so that we have an opportunity to kind of share our family with our Navy family.

Drew F. Lawrence

And others can, can they bring their family as well?

Commander Jorge Roldan

Yes, if the duty section member has someone that they would like to bring a meal...

Drew F. Lawrence

Oh, I almost forgot. Jock, the SUPPO, was kind enough to pull out a turkey for us to take a look at. It was the big reveal of the day. Take a listen: I was going to interview it.

Lt. Melissa Jock

You're gonna interview the turkey? Tell me how that goes. Yeah, sure.

Drew F. Lawrence

You want to help me? I'm kidding. Thank you for listening to this special episode of Fire Watch. Credit to our executive producer, Zach Fryer-Biggs and a special thank you to the crew and personnel at Naval Station Norfolk for your time. As always, thanks for listening.

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