by KAREN RUSSO
Clouds of brown dust assault the soldiers' faces as they wait in line, but it's no deterrent. In just a few minutes they'll feel as close to home as they can get from half a world away.
It's lunchtime on "Soul Food Thursday" at the Containerized Kitchen for Task Force Saber on Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan.
Unlike the oversized cafeteria-style dining facilities - better known as D-FACS in the military's world of acronyms this small "CK" looks like a caboose abandoned by its train in the middle of the desert.
Inside, servers load paper plates full of fried chicken, catfish, mac and cheese, collard greens and Hop Bean John salad. The American southern-style menu was created with a focus on the familiar.
"It's such a moral boost having food that tastes like food from home here," said Capt. Alicia Stahlberg, 26, from Fairfax, Va.
With the main base located several miles down the dirt road, food - until recently was often frustratingly far away. Meals were missed if a pilot's shift ended at an odd hour. Now, soldiers eat steps from their work on their nearby airfield.
In the military, life almost revolves around food. Chowhall is one of the few places where soldiers can decompress for a few moments each day. So if the meal is lousy, it ruins just about the only moment they can forget about work. Ask any soldier they'll tell you their favorite D-FAC or provide a list of favorite spots to eat on base.
In Kandahar, which has only one CK, it is getting a reputation.
"We face a lot of challenges," said Michael Mosley, 37, Senior Food Operations Sergeant. "We're dealing with the elements, sanitization, lots of dust and parasites and pests." But so far, they are succeeding. "We try to give them something to look forward to in the work week and getting them through these hard times," said Mosley.
For Travis Burton, one of the chefs, cooking for the Army is drastically different than his previous career at the Ritz Carlton in Orlando, Fla. If it weren't for his student loan debts from culinary school, Burton says he would still be at the Ritz, where he had more creative freedom.
Food Can Make or Ruin the Day for a Soldier in Afghanistan
"We're limited to what you can do, to what you can acquire here. The food is pre-packaged, pre-cooked, pre-seasoned so you need to be careful what you do to it," Burton said. Too much seasoning with prepared foods can contradict and destroy the dishes.
Limitations aside, the chefs are still experimenting.
Sgt Earl Lendore, 26, cooks Caribbean-style dishes from his home in Grenada islands. For dinner, he is preparing curried chicken.
"A lot of people don't know a lot of Caribbean dishes. They'll look at it and think it's different. But then they'll eat it and love it!" he said.