COMBAT OUTPOST AKASHAT, Iraq --
Before the sun rises over the al-Anbar desert, Lance Cpl. Roberto Reid is up and moving in the chow hall at Combat Outpost Akashat, an austere base of operations for a detachment of Marines from 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5.
“When the Marines know I’m on the grill making omelets for breakfast, the line is out the door and into the parking lot,” said Reid, 30, a food service specialist with the battalion’s Headquarters and Service Company.
As a sous chef at a fine dining establishment in New York City’s Upper East Side and graphic artist in his civilian life, Reid joined the Marine Forces Reserve at the age of 27 to add an element of diversity to his already dynamic career in one of the world’s most metropolitan cities.
“The best thing about being in the Marine Corps is meeting people from so many different walks of life, and sharing the bond of Marine brotherhood,” said Reid. “A lot of people in my family were in the Army, but I wanted to be different. I wanted to be a Marine.”
Reid’s gourmet breakfasts and dinners are greatly appreciated by the troops at this Spartan outpost, set in a lunar-like vista about 30 kilometers from the country’s border with Syria.
“Considering the resources he has been given, Reid has definitely made the best of it,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Persaud, 36, a corpsman with Scout-Sniper Platoon, H&S Co., from New York City. “He’s always upbeat about everything he does and a real self-starter. He’s performing the duties of a staff (non-commissioned officer), and he’s doing an awesome job.”
Persaud, on his third deployment serving the Marines medical needs, explained that Reid’s cooking is the best he has seen in more than 18 months at forwarding operating bases in Iraq since 2005. Persaud, a paramedic with the Fire Department of New York in his civilian career, said that his favorite meal at COP Akashat is the steak that Reid steams and then grills medium rare.
Despite his junior rank, Reid is the only food service specialist at the chow hall, supervising more senior Marines who are on temporary mess hall duty. Using innovative recipes and cooking techniques, he has does his best with the limited diversity of staple foods sent in on convoys from larger bases many miles away.
Some of Reid’s specialties include shrimp scampi, roast chicken and oriental stir fry. He also spiced up the cold cut lunches at the COP by firing up the grill to make ham and cheese melts and pita sandwiches, like you might find in a New York City deli.
“My attitude about life here is ‘adapt and overcome.’ This is a place where you’re constantly presented with new challenges,” Reid said. “If the burners go down, it doesn’t matter — there are still Marines to be fed. The last time the burners in the kitchen were down, we chopped palettes of wood and cooked with a skillet over an open fire.”
Not only has Reid enhanced the quality of life for the Marines at COP Akashat, he has also, on his own personal initiative, facilitated the shipment of food staples to even more remote Coalition outposts, such as the Marine contingent at Border Fort 9 on Iraq’s border with Syria.
“He’s truly a great Marine,” said Gunnery Sgt. Maximillian Vernon, 38, of Lemoore, Calif., the training chief for Border Transition Team 4222. “As a junior guy, he figured out a way to work with supply headquarters from larger bases to get the troops out here good quality chow. We are directly benefiting from his knowledge, experience and his commitment to his fellow Marines.”
The ironic part of Reid’s success as a cook in Iraq is that from the time he graduated from the U.S. Army Food Service School in Ft. Lee, Va., in 2005, to when he arrived at Akashat in late September 2008, he had not cooked one time in the Marine Corps.
“When I checked into H&S Company in Garden City (N.Y.), they found that I knew Spanish, Japanese, French and Arabic, so they moved me into the (intelligence section),” said Reid.
When not mobilized, Reserve Marines typically attend drills one weekend a month and extended annual summer training. The remainder of the time, they have normal civilian lives and careers. Reid worked as an intelligence analyst during his weekend drills. While on deployment during annual training in Senegal in 2007, he served as a translator, speaking French and Wolof with his Senegalese counterparts.
In addition to being a linguist and a chef, Reid’s passion for graphic arts and drawing have always been at the forefront of his life.
“My mom told me that with most kids, if you give them a toy, it keeps them quiet,” Reid said. “Whenever she gave me some paper and a pen, that was what kept me quiet.”
A 2002 graduate of the Hyogo School of Design in Japan, Reid works out of his home as a free-lance graphic artist, creating promotional products for large clothing and sporting goods companies. The companies sometimes fly him around the country for assignments at expositions and other events.
When the Marine Corps flew him half way around the world to Iraq in September, Reid brought his love of drawing and painting with him.
In the evenings, and on his one day off work each week, he spends most of his time splashing his brush into watercolors and cleaning it off in a container made from a water bottle which he cut off at the top. He has produced more than 20 pieces over the past three months, and is currently finishing a watercolor landscape of the sun setting over the Akashat Train Station.
“To the outsider, my life is like a contradictory canvas as an artist and a Marine,” said Reid. “My friends back home can’t see me out here, like a fish out of water. That was how I felt when I first got here to Iraq—I was frustrated not having any art supplies around.”
After another Marine saw some of Reid’s sketches in early October, he was so impressed that the friend contacted family back home. Several weeks later, Reid received a shipment of watercolor paint, brushes and canvas. Later, he received additional supplies from USMC Angels, a non-profit organization which sends comfort items to Marines deployed overseas in support of the Global War on Terror.
USMC Angels was founded by Melanie L. Joseph, 36, of Fords, N.J., wife of Cpl. Brian K. Joseph, 26, a team leader serving at COP Akashat with the battalion’s Company G.
“I do this work because … I know it’s a burden to some families to send supplies and packages to their Marine,” said Joseph, who sends packages to Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I have focused on (motivating) the Marines at Akashat because their supplies and amenities are less than perfect. My goal is to make their day a little easier and let them know the support they have back at home.”
Using the supplies sent by the people back home, Reid has set up a make-shift studio in the room he shares with several other Marines. He mounts the canvas to the wall next to his bed, and covers the mattress with a poncho as a drop cloth.
“As soon as I got my art supplies, I got to working,” said Reid. “This is a great landscape here. Most people just see open desert, but we have the best sunrises and sunsets.
“Fresh air, the stars, the moon, the array of colors, the sunrise here gives me a moment of peace,” Reid continued. “I’m always up for sunrise, and that’s why I don’t mind being in the kitchen early.”