A visitor to the United Service Organizations building on the Bagram Airfield base in Afghanistan could easily mistake the place for a civilian home.
Brown leather couches beckon tired soldiers to sit back, relax and kick up their dusty boots. A wrap-around kitchen bar tempts hungry servicemen and women with lollipops, candy bars, chips and trail mix. Sports memorabilia and framed artwork cover the walls, and kitchen cabinets, stuffed to the brim with DVDs, add to the relaxed vibe.
But despite all the comfy trappings, soldiers serving abroad can still fall victim to homesickness. That’s where meals come in.
“Fourth of July is coming up," Lottie said. "Everyone in America can go out to their grocery store, get steaks and burgers, have a barbecue and cook with their families. But that is a luxury over in Afghanistan.”
If the USO wants to hold a holiday event, it has to move mountains to coordinate the shipment of meat to service bases. The group almost always finds a way.
“Getting a freezer to put all of the stuff in was a challenge,” said Lottie, laughing. “But we managed to do it and we had a line around the USO building."
The food is free of charge for the soldiers, which the USO funds through outside donations and ongoing fundraising campaigns. With "Barbecue for the Troops," for instance, participants back home host their own cookouts, collect money from friends and family, and pledge to donate it to the USO.
On Lottie’s former base, her USO comrades celebrated soldiers' birthdays once a month by baking birthday cupcakes. The USO building didn’t have ovens, so everything had to be made in a microwave, blender, crock pot or griddle. One of her co-workers used his imagination and blended soda with cake mix to cook cupcakes in Dixie cups in a microwave.
It’s not just holidays that inspire creative solutions, says Charles H. Talley Jr., a Chief Warrant Officer who spent a year overseeing food personnel and food procurement for soldiers in Afghanistan.
“The festivities leading up to Superbowl - like the cookout and the beverages and the finger foods - we all love that," he said. "We take pride in it.”
But soldiers serving overseas don’t have access to televisions to watch the game, let alone pigs in a blanket or chips and dip. That's where Air Force master sergeant Mark Evans' Pizza 4 Patriots group steps in to help.
According to its website, the non-profit Pizza 4 Patriots has delivered more than 125,000 pizzas or one million slices to soldiers serving abroad - including those on some of Talley's bases.
The logistics are tricky: getting pizzas flown in and brought to smaller bases, along with TVs showing the game and a spread including traditional Superbowl trimmings like hot wings, vegetable platters and ranch dressing. Talley believes it's worth the effort, saying, "What better way to make a soldier feel like they are at home?”
Talley, who honed his own culinary skills cooking red beans and rice with his mother in Louisiana, cites a military saying: "As long as you pay a soldier and you feed a soldier, it’s okay."
“But when you go to Afghanistan, you’re not worried about pay, because you’re trying to make sure you [keep everyone alive]." he said. "But the food element, that’s what gets you started. It sustains you, it motivates you and it increases not only your morale, but the morale of the team.”
Brian Coyle, USO Director of Chartered Center Relations, served in the Navy for almost 20 years. He was partial to peanut butter as a spirit booster.
“[Food] brings back some of those senses of community that you feel at home with your family - but this is a new family.” said Coyle.
He continued, “When you’re in the military, that’s your family. You fight with them and you die with them, you protect each other and you break bread together. It’s just a part of our culture.”