Tomah VA Medical Center
My Life My Story August 2021
Thursday, August 26, 2021My story starts on the Island of Luzon in the Philippines in 1944. This is when a village elder decided to allow the Japanese occupying force to burn his mother alive rather than give up my dad. If it wasn't for the Philippine villagers, I wouldn't have been born. I have no idea how they could have been so courageous.
I was born in Springfield, Ohio on May 28, 1956. I grew up in Appleton, which is where I consider home. We weren't rich, but we always had food. My dad was a big guiding force in my life. He dedicated his life to my older brother, older sister and me. Both of my parents were very much involved. About 10 years ago, I wrote and won a national essay contest for “A Hero in My Life” from the Paralyzed Veterans of America which told the more expanded version of my dad’s story behind enemy lines.
As a kid, I stood up and held my hand over my heart every time the American flag went by. I joined the Americanos Drum and Bugle Corps when I was 14 years old and stayed until I was 21. I learned the position of attention, parade rest and played as a bugle soloist. I knew I wanted to become a chef my last year of junior high school. I ended up on the Appleton School Board Curriculum Advisory Committee where they used one of my suggestions and my food service career was off and running when I was 17 years old. I worked at a country club, then as a night manager of a restaurant, then as a dishwasher/prep cook at a Chinese restaurant. I decided to go to a vocational school, and I worked at a bakery full time so I could pay for my own schooling. While at school, I was asked to help teach a class and the State of Wisconsin paid me $1.25 an hour to assist a Special Education teacher in a special class they were doing to get people out of institutions and into a group home and to do that, they had to cook for themselves. I didn’t do it for the money and did what I was asked. They did ask everyone, I volunteered. The teacher got frustrated with a girl who was in a wheelchair, and that had some mental issues as well, that could not accomplish a mandatory task of eggs over easy. I gave it a shot. When I explained everything to her, she did it for the first time. She started crying with joy. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was so overwhelmed and never expected an emotional response from her or me. From that point forward, I dedicated my life to cooking to teach one day and knew at that moment, the absolute joy of teaching. I completed school and became head chef. I then headed off to Minnesota and worked at a country club and took a second job at a private supper club to make ends meet.
One day when I was at my girlfriends an Army Staff Sergeant in his dress uniform came to see my girlfriend’s brother. I listened to the spiel and asked him what the heck, what did he have for me? Stripes for Skills was a program that if you had civilian training, they’d give you an extra stripe and could skip AIT, going from basic training straight to your first duty station. I did a little bit of research and learned the Army was the only branch of service that had a culinary team.
I was 24 when I joined the Army. I took the oath on February 29, 1980 and in April I went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I got orders to go to Fort Lee, Virginia for AIT. I told the Drill Instructor I was supposed to go to Fort Carson, Colorado. He said soldier you’ve got two choices: either go back home a loser or just go to school. So, I went to cooking school, graduating on a Friday and teaching by Monday. At my first duty station I was a Private 1st Class filling a Staff Sergeant position cooking for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -General David C. Jones in 1980. I cooked for Chairman U.S. Army John W. Vessey, U.S. Navy Admiral William J. Crowe and ending with Colin Powell, U.S. Army during Desert Storm. A lot of things happened at the Pentagon and a lot of famous and powerful people floated through the office of the highest-ranking military person in America. While at the Pentagon, I went back to back years undefeated at the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition. That was Army wide with about 250 cooks. I probably have 10 Gold, a couple Silver, and a couple Bronze medals from that era in the 80’s when I competed. I was selected for E-7 at seven years. I was good at cooking and evidently the Army didn't have that many restaurant style trained cooks, so it really made me look good. I was at the Pentagon my entire first 11 years.
Once I realized that the Army would pay me to live in Europe, I went from Washington D.C. to Stuttgart, Germany. I worked at headquarters of the U.S. European Command, which is the command building for all U.S. forces in Europe. From there, I went to Belgium to be the personal chef to the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO for six years. I worked for Generals George Joulwan and Wesley K. Clark at the Chateau Gendebien. General Clark was the NATO Commander and took NATO to war for the first time in NATO history and the target was Bosnia. We moved to 24-hour operations and that was really the pinnacle of my cooking career because most of these people had their own personal chef in their residences, so I had to step up my game.
I made Sergeant Major and went to El Paso, Texas to the Academy (Class 51). My dad always had encouraged me to volunteer and I felt that I owed it to him for what he had endured. So, putting the needs of the Army first, I went back to Europe and ended up with 5th Corps in Heidelberg and was co-located with USAEUR Headquarters, U.S. Army Europe. 5th Corps was comprised of 1st Armor, 1st Infantry Divisions and 10 separate Brigades. I oversaw enough cooks to feed over 200,000 people. I did multiple exercises in Poland and that was a hoot being in a former Soviet training area. Then 9/11 hit and that was the beginning of our second exercise in Poland. Two-days later, I was on a train as part of the advance party going to the middle of nowhere in Poland and with no news. We ended up going incommunicado with no idea of what was going on. I was with a whole lot of nervous soldiers wondering if we were going to war or if we were still going to stay in Poland. We had no idea and we were just going to deal with it as it comes. It was interesting.
Even though I had a permanent medical profile precluding deployment, I volunteered for the advance team RSOI Cell; Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration Cell at the port in Kuwait in January of 2003. I worked as part of the buildup, but I don't know what the operation was called because there weren't any TV’s. I then became responsible for all food operations in base camps in Kuwait and then all of Iraq. That is when I pretty much became overwhelmed. It was just me and a staff of zero. I ended up as the Red Cross Coordinator for all of Iraq for a couple weeks. For 17-days, I was the Mortuary Affairs Officer, still with no staff. I was then told I would be the Lead Planner for all the Kellogg, Brown and Root Logistics contracts. Anyone would get overwhelmed and I never fully recovered from that. My issue wasn't really the PSD with having to see death and be in that mortal danger, but it sure didn't make daily life too great for me because of knowing that there were people out there counting on me.
I ended up being medevac’d out of Baghdad due to my medical profile issues. I pretty much worked the last 72 hours of my time in theater, with no replacement yet, so the 72 hours was working on turnover material and project status for replacement in Iraq, with no sleep which is probably how I slept through a mortar attack. The night I was medevac’d out of the Bagdad Airport, I showed up at the medical holding area waiting for the flight that evening because they only sent planes out at night and not during the daytime. I went to sleep, from pure exhaustion, and the next thing I knew my cot was surrounded with people saying, “Where were you?” I was confused because I had been asleep. They told me that a mortar landed less than 50 yards away and there was a total of three. I slept through all the explosions, so I just took their word for it.
I went back to Germany and was living in Heidelberg, where I had multiple back surgeries. These did not end well. Then I had a heart attack. I went to Fort Lee, Virginia for my twilight tour. I took over the Philip A. Connelly Program for Food Service Excellence, which is basically a cooking competition in the Army. I traveled all over the world to do that. I ended my military career in 2008. This may be of a surprise, but I was selected for Command Sergeant Major, CSM and I don’t have either of the most common awards, the Army Achievement Medal nor the Army Commendation Medal because of the Department of Defense. DoD regulations forbid service specific awards when working any joint duty. I have the Joint Service Achievement and Joint Service Commendation for finishing at the top of my class in Advanced Non-Commissioned Officers course.
I pretty much divorced myself from the military and enjoyed my retirement. I returned to Wisconsin and that ends the interesting portion of my life. I split my first 7-8 months between three locations: my sister’s house near Madison, a friend’s house near Appleton and hotel rooms until I found this location in Sparta. Between the botched back surgery, which limited my mobility, and the multiple heart attacks; that pretty much put working in the crapper. I did play for Bugles Across America playing live Taps for free and played for all Sparta city functions. Having a darkroom in my basement as a teen, rekindled my interest in photography, which includes lightning photos. My photos have been used by NASA and the Weather channel. The Vilas zoo in Madison used three of my photos for their zoo critter trading cards they give to kids. I love the Vilas zoo, which is free, for their generosity to the community. I did attend Viterbo for two semesters but was unhappy with some of the professors. I got the vibe they were anti-military and I didn't appreciate it. The course work was ok, but it just really rubbed me the wrong way to be treated less than fair. I try to have fairness as the cornerstone of my leadership style. I’m not a natural born leader unless we're talking about food.
I started going to the Madison VA after my retirement. When I settled down in this area, I made Tomah my home facility. I have no legitimate complaints about my care at the VA, it’s more of a systems complaint. I knew there was something wrong with me and that it was not an infection or a problem with my tooth. The same methodology is used with all doctors - eliminate possibilities with the easiest treatments first. I know it is all part of the process of trying to figure out what's wrong. It took at least six-months before I saw anyone that would look at cancer as a possibility. That’s probably how it would happen at the Mayo Clinic too. It’s just how it goes, and it doesn't reflect anything positive or negative with the VA. I feel bad that this is the system that everybody goes through. The last thing anybody who is diagnosed with cancer wants to hear is “If we would have only caught it sooner.” I was diagnosed in April 2015. I saw ENT by August, Oncology by October and started treatment mid-December and ended February 2016. I don't blame anybody for that because that is the standard medical procedure. Now, I don't expect to be around for Christmas.
Food really is my life and I have thought about writing a combination autobiography and cookbook. I would say that I've had a weird, not just career, but life.