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Chief Warrant Officer Atelano Villon mans the grill at his retirement picnic Tuesday at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea.
Chief Warrant Officer Atelano Villon mans the grill at his retirement picnic Tuesday at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Nearly 37 years ago, Atelano Villon was studying architecture at home in Hawaii when his military draft letter arrived.

A self-confessed mama’s boy, he couldn’t cook a thing, so it was another surprise when he learned he would be a “food service apprentice” — Army parlance for cook.

But a cook he was, and by the end of his tour he was serving food in Vietnam. When Villon, now a chief warrant officer, learned his kid brother was called to Vietnam as well, he re-enlisted to serve his brother’s war tour for him.

He decided to stick with his Army career, becoming a warrant officer in 1981.

Villon, 57, since has evolved into the Army’s top food service technician in South Korea, assigned to the food service section of the maintenance, supply and services branch under the U.S. Army Installation Management Agency-Korea Region Office.

On Tuesday, the soldiers and civilians he works with around the peninsula came to Yongsan to toast Villon during a surprise retirement picnic. Ever the cook and perfectionist, Villon, who retires this month, manned the grill at his own party.

Villon’s command also planned for this week a retirement and award ceremony, where KORO’s director, Brig. Gen. H.T. Landwermeyer Jr., was to present Villon with a Legion of Merit.

But retirement may not be the end of the road for Villon’s work in South Korea. After a trip home to Hawaii, Villon will reapply for his current job, which is being converted to a civilian position.

For now, Villon said he would miss working with soldiers, especially overseas, where separation from home brings everyone closer. And those who work for and with Villon said they would miss his professionalism and patience.

“He brings a calmness to the table,” said Chief Warrant Officer Travis Smith, 19th Theater Support Command food adviser, adding that Villon exemplifies the warrant officer axiom of being the quiet professional.

“He’s a subject-matter expert and we’ll miss him."

They also will miss his experience and skill as technical adviser to the food service teams and dining facilities in each area. His position affects the 37 dining facilities on the peninsula.

“There’s not a whole lot of people out there with that experience,” said Villon’s supervisor, Michael T. Sariano, maintenance, supply and services branch chief. “In his absence there’s certainly going to be a noticeable void.”

Kim Tong-sop, KORO’s subsistence manager, said that in the few years he has worked with Villon, there has been nary a complaint from soldiers about their food, even at holidays — proof positive he does his job well.

“Especially at holidays — one staple is missing and you hear about it,” Kim said.

Villon said the food service industry has changed substantially since he started.

“Cooking has gotten too easy now,” he said. “When I came in, you had to cook a cake from scratch. You had to pour in flour and sugar. Now it’s easy — just heat it up.”

Despite his impromptu entry into the Army, Villon said he’s happy he stayed and joined food service.

“If I had to do it over again, I’d do it the same.”

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