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The grills on Camp Lemonier in Djibouti were working on Christmas Day as members of 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment, Guam Army National Guard, prepare a Christmas barbecue. The holiday feast was expected to feed hundreds of the U.S. Servicesmembers spending the holidays in Africa.
The grills on Camp Lemonier in Djibouti were working on Christmas Day as members of 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment, Guam Army National Guard, prepare a Christmas barbecue. The holiday feast was expected to feed hundreds of the U.S. Servicesmembers spending the holidays in Africa. (Zeke Minaya / S&S)
The grills on Camp Lemonier in Djibouti were working on Christmas Day as members of 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment, Guam Army National Guard, prepare a Christmas barbecue. The holiday feast was expected to feed hundreds of the U.S. Servicesmembers spending the holidays in Africa.
The grills on Camp Lemonier in Djibouti were working on Christmas Day as members of 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment, Guam Army National Guard, prepare a Christmas barbecue. The holiday feast was expected to feed hundreds of the U.S. Servicesmembers spending the holidays in Africa. (Zeke Minaya / S&S)
Spc. Fred Rocio, 40, of Guam, takes a break from cooking up a Christmas Day feast to show off some moves on the dance floor. Rocio and fellow members of the 1st Battalion 294th Infantry Regiment, Guam Army National Guard, have become known on Camp Lemonier for their barbecues and lively get-togethers.
Spc. Fred Rocio, 40, of Guam, takes a break from cooking up a Christmas Day feast to show off some moves on the dance floor. Rocio and fellow members of the 1st Battalion 294th Infantry Regiment, Guam Army National Guard, have become known on Camp Lemonier for their barbecues and lively get-togethers. (Zeke Minaya / S&S)
Spc. Tom Benavente, 36, mixes up a fresh batch of Beef Kelaguen, a savory concoction of raw meat, lemon juice, onions and hot peppers, while Pfc. Steven Cruz, 28 sprinkles in some spices on Christmas Day, on Camp Lemonier, Djibouti.
Spc. Tom Benavente, 36, mixes up a fresh batch of Beef Kelaguen, a savory concoction of raw meat, lemon juice, onions and hot peppers, while Pfc. Steven Cruz, 28 sprinkles in some spices on Christmas Day, on Camp Lemonier, Djibouti. (Zeke Minaya / S&S)

DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — New arrivals to Camp Lemonier quickly learn two inevitable facts of life on the American base. First, it gets incredibly hot in Djibouti. Second, the soldiers of the Guam National Guard can throw down in the kitchen.

“Give us a can of Spam and we can make something out of it,” said Spc. Tom Benavente, 36.

On Christmas Day, with a radio blasting reggae-tinged beats, the servicemembers of the 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment were at it again, adding to their culinary legend by preparing a feast for the holiday.

There were no measuring cups to be seen. They were not needed, the cooks insisted.

“We don’t do Martha Stewart cooking here,” said Spc. Steven Cruz, 28, “We just eyeball it; do it by feel.”

The spices were flying. Lemon powder, an assortment of hot peppers, onions and other ingredients native to the Pacific Island’s kitchen were mixed, mashed, swirled and sprinkled with beef, chicken and fish.

“Back from where we’re from we are born and raised to cook; we learn it from our elders,” Benavente said as he kneaded a fresh batch of Beef Kelaguen, a savory concoction of raw meat, lemon juice, onions and hot peppers.

Benavente said he started cooking when he was 6, doing simple dishes like rice. There is no single signature Guam dish, he said.

“Everything we do is awesome,” Benavente said.

Skill with ingredients only partially explains what makes a Guam cookout so special, several of the guardsmen said. Their ability with food is an extension of their warm and open culture, they said.

Visiting Guam is like meeting family members you never knew you had, they said.

“It’s all about togetherness, getting together and having a good time,” said Spc. Joe Mantanona, 20. “From your first time in Guam, you are welcomed. We consider everybody family.”

The dinner Christmas Day, when temperatures were in the mid-80s, would be enough to serve several hundred of the U.S. servicemembers and other personnel of the camp, the guardsmen said.

In Africa since April, the unit has been supporting the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa. They have been accompanying the various humanitarian missions as protection for the well drillers, doctors and veterinarians working to promote stability and goodwill in eastern Africa. The guardsmen have also participated in joint training exercises with African military members.

The members of the unit soon began to make a name for themselves, not only for knowing their way around a grill, but also for the inclusiveness of their gatherings.

“Everybody is welcomed to our parties,” said Spc. Patrick Cruz, 20.

Of course, Christmas Day brings thoughts of home. But, as they scramble around the hot grills and crackling frying pans, listening to music, laughing at each other’s jokes and passing around food, it’s clear that the Guam guardsmen brought a little bit of home to Djibouti with them.

“We are away from home and we are going to make the best of it,” 1st Sgt. Gene Guzman said.

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