The November 2010 trip fed 38,000 troops at four bases and included two Neapolitans: Kimberly Jo Van Heuvelen, global support manager for Outback Steakhouse International, who was not available for this interview; and Andrew Sansone, managing partner for Carrabba’s Italian Grill.
Sansone applied to be part of the trip last year and was accepted as an alternate. Volunteers are chosen based on their length of time with the company and their accomplishments, he explained — there is no physical test, although it’s not a bad idea to be in good shape, considering the demands of the trip.
Itineraries can be grueling. On the Afghanistan trip, the volunteers flew from Washington, D.C., to London to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia — a travel time of 24 hours. On the last leg of their journey, the 26 OSI volunteers traveled aboard a small commercial carrier; en route, the flight attendant told them it was the first time the airline had hosted so many Western travelers at once.
Then there are the accommodations within Afghanistan. Helicopters are used for moving between bases. Creature comforts are few, and tent living may be the norm. For such reasons, it’s not unusual for volunteers to entertain last-minute second thoughts.
“Once people find out what it entails, they stop for a second and say, hey, maybe this isn’t for me,” he said.
Not Sansone, though. When he was chosen to go, he was able, ready and willing. And if he was excited to arrive, so, too, were the troops they were to feed. Maybe even more thrilled than he was, Sansone noted: More than one soldier told Sansone they thought it was just a tall tale that they’d be having calamari and vegetable ravioli with mushroom sauce for dinner.
“Everyone we were encountering was saying thank you to us,” Sansone said. “We hadn’t even done anything yet.”
Prior to their arrival, OSI shipped all the food to the various bases their volunteers were to visit. The food was then prepared on site in the base kitchens. The kitchens were well-equipped, Sansone said, but not much larger than the typical Carrabba’s kitchen. In those small spaces, the volunteers turned out endless meals; Sansone does not want to reveal exact locations and the corresponding numbers, but at one base, 18,000 meals were served.
Food from friends
In all, this year’s Feeding Freedom menu included 46,000 lbs. of 12-ounce New York Strips, or an estimated 6,000 steaks. In addition to bloomin’ onions, calamari, steak and ravioli, there was also cavatappi amatriciani — a pasta dish with spicy red sauce — along with baked potatoes and cheesecake.
Carrabba’s signature olive oil, herbs and bread made the trip, too, as did the bloomin’ onion cutter — an industrial-grade onion slicer referred to as a “Gloria” by Outback staff.
“It was a success,” Sansone said, adding that some soldiers began lining up an hour before the meal was to be served. “It was a bit hit. Everyone loved it.”
Sansone has photographs of his travels, including a snapshot of the shipped and packaged food, all lined up and stacked on wooden palettes. The boxes tower 6 and 7 feet high and extend out of the camera’s viewfinder frame. Such staggering supplies proved to be a good thing, too.
“There were some guys that had two and three steaks,” Sansone said.
Sansone also has a photograph of the MREs, or Meal, Ready-to-Eat military dinners, that the soldiers usually consume.
Yes, he tried one. No, he didn’t especially enjoy it.
“Let me tell you,” Sansone recalled, blanching a bit. “One kid told me, ‘I ate that for four months.’ ”
Even better: friendly ears
Still, although the food proved popular, there was no real question about who were the trip’s real heroes. The OSI volunteers visited four U.S. military bases — one base in Krygyzstan and three in Afghanistan — and had the opportunity to visit a hospital center at one. For Sansone, it was a moving experience.
“I think more tears were shed over their stories than the food,” he said. “And they’re just kids.”
There were tense moments, too. On the last day of the trip and on a small base in the northern part of Afghanistan, there was gunfire in the area. It proved to be nothing, but like so many other memorable moments, it reminded Sansone of what the soldiers endure on a daily basis.
He describes Afghanistan as simply “indescribable.”
“I’m never going to forget that experience,” he said. “But also, a newfound respect for our military. Every man and woman who serves in our military should be honored, and not just once a year.”