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Pfc. Ty Starkey, right, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Airman 1st Class Dana Stanford of the 506th Expeditionary Services Squadron, and Sgt. Carlos Ramos of the 173rd serve up chicken, potatoes and vegetables to soldiers and airmen at the belated Memorial Day picnic at Kirkuk airfield, Iraq. 4000 servings were prepared for the day's feast.
Pfc. Ty Starkey, right, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Airman 1st Class Dana Stanford of the 506th Expeditionary Services Squadron, and Sgt. Carlos Ramos of the 173rd serve up chicken, potatoes and vegetables to soldiers and airmen at the belated Memorial Day picnic at Kirkuk airfield, Iraq. 4000 servings were prepared for the day's feast. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Pfc. Ty Starkey, right, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Airman 1st Class Dana Stanford of the 506th Expeditionary Services Squadron, and Sgt. Carlos Ramos of the 173rd serve up chicken, potatoes and vegetables to soldiers and airmen at the belated Memorial Day picnic at Kirkuk airfield, Iraq. 4000 servings were prepared for the day's feast.
Pfc. Ty Starkey, right, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Airman 1st Class Dana Stanford of the 506th Expeditionary Services Squadron, and Sgt. Carlos Ramos of the 173rd serve up chicken, potatoes and vegetables to soldiers and airmen at the belated Memorial Day picnic at Kirkuk airfield, Iraq. 4000 servings were prepared for the day's feast. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Airman Justin Thibault of the 506th Expeditionary Services Squadron barbecues chicken for the belated Memorial Day picnic at Kirkuk airfield, Iraq.
Airman Justin Thibault of the 506th Expeditionary Services Squadron barbecues chicken for the belated Memorial Day picnic at Kirkuk airfield, Iraq. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

KIRKUK, Iraq — “It’s not Memorial Day until I say so,” said Air Force Col. Jim Callahan.

Friday was it.

Well, he had good reason for delaying the festivities until the end of the week — the grub planned for the celebration hadn’t arrived in time for a Monday observance, and he wasn’t going to do the job half way.

“We were going to do this right or not going to do it at all,” said Callahan, commanding officer of the 506th Air Expeditionary Group based at the Kirkuk airfield in northern Iraq.

And doing it right meant food — real food — to include barbecue chicken, stuffing, seasoned fried potatoes, chips, fruit cocktail and fresh watermelon.

Staff Sgt. Kathy Epperson, with the Washington, D.C., Air National Guard, hadn’t eaten in 24 hours to prep for the much-anticipated feast.

“No [Meals Ready to Eat], no nothing,” Epperson said. “I wanted my stomach empty for this. I decided not to mess it up with eating MREs.”

And the verdict: “I’m cutting everything into little bits so it will last longer,” she said.

“I’m eating everything, the whole chicken and even the peas, and I don’t like peas. I’m going to report back to my mother that I’m eating my vegetables,” said the 40-year-old transportation specialist who works for the Secret Service on the civilian side.

The Memorial Day celebration took hours of planning and lots of string-pulling by leaders — who wanted to provide real food for the troops, Callahan said.

While it took only 15 minutes for Senior Master Sgt. Edwin “Chopper” Lynds II to plan the menu, getting through the channels to obtain the food took several weeks.

“We’re not established to serve fresh food,” Callahan said, who added he pleaded and tweaked the systems a bit to bring in the food from Al Jaber near Kuwait City for the one-time event.

That meant enough chicken, spuds, veggies and four kinds of chips to feed 4,000 hungry stomachs in the joint Air Force and Army celebration.

“These young airmen and soldiers have been working hard since they got here” roughly two months ago, he said.

Inspectors rounded the vats of cooking food, with thermometers in hand to ensure the chicken, which first had been boiled for 20 minutes to aid in cooking, were barbecued just right and the potatoes registered at least 140 degrees, ensuring they were suitable for consumption.

Master Sgt. Rich Adkins, 39 “and holding,” volunteered to man the deejay station, playing a little something for everyone — a little rock, a little hip-hop, a little bluegrass and a lot of country. He “cobbled things together,” linking a Walkman compact disc player to the public address system to blare the “music, sweet music.”

As if the 100-plus heat wasn’t stifling enough, Army Spc. James Jantzen, with the 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy, stood over a vat of boiling water and chicken broth cooking the stuffing — with pimentos included to add a dash of color.

“I’ve always wanted to be a cook,” the 30-year-old said. “I like to see people have a smile on their face.”

He got to some 4,000 smiles.

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