Battleland

War and Peaza

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Napoleon said an army “marches on its stomach.” While nourishment and sustenance are all well and good, after a couple of months in the sandbox even the most gung-ho U.S. soldier begins hankering for something other than MREs.

That’s where guys like Major Edward Sleeper, an Army logistician, come in. While it has been awhile since his arrived in Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion with the 101st Airborne Division, he only got around to telling his tale of feeding his soldiers last month, in an interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth. Some of his stream-of-consciousness thoughts follow:

My job was logistics and so it encompassed beans, bullets, band aids. [Laughs] It was tough; it was logistically very tough to move that size of an element, giving our structure, our speed and the requirements that we had. Food, as far as a priority, starts to drop off. I don’t think people truly understand the cube weight and requirements to feed a lot of people across the battlefield. It’s a very difficult thing. Getting the initial supplies in place that are required to conduct combat operations, most Soldiers are eating the meals, ready-to-eat (MREs) and that will sustain them for a fair amount of time. Four months or so is certainly tedious but it’s not nutritionally bad…

We started figuring out how we could do it if they would let us do it. First thing was bread; they started procuring bread. It wasn’t really making it to us but we had heard, “There doing this in Mosul.” [Laughs] Our boss…got the word that if done correctly we could do it.

He came to me and said, “Ed, if you can do it, great, go ahead and do it.” I said, “Well, what’s ‘do it,’ sir?” He said, “Provide food for the Soldiers.” I said, “Okay, sir, I will. Here’s my plan. I want to open a pizza place.” [Laughter] He said, “You’re crazy, but if you do it right then you can do it.” “Okay, sir.”

I love pizza. I think it’s the most perfect food…It seemed easy. It seemed like an American food. It seemed fairly marketable. I think it appeals to just about everybody. I think I was probably delirious a little…

I think the audacious part was to have them build a brick oven pizza stove. I don’t know why I thought that…That one, to this day, I look back and think, “That was crazy. What were you thinking?” I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t ever built a brick oven pizza stove before. I had a vision of what a brick oven for pizzas looked like. Man, they did a great job! I have no idea why I did that. [Laughs]…

Well, the building I found, nobody had really wanted because it was partially destroyed but it was also next to an ammunition building that was full of ammunition that really needed to be removed. [Laughs]…It was a fixer-upper. So, since I was working that part, which was getting all of that stuff out, I knew this building would eventually be available. I started working on it.

Mohammed Karamese assured me that this was possible. I sat down with him and I probably first laid out my plan really with him. “I think we can turn this building to make pizza.” We walked around this building, which became known as “The Eagles Nest,” or, “The Eagles Rest,” or, “The Screaming Eagle Lounge;” it had many different names. It was even “The Purple Building” at one time. [Laughs] Then even, “The Pizza Place.”

…[Karamese, a local Iraqi] didn’t know what pizza was. [Laughs] I said, “Well, how about bread? Can you make bread?” He says, “Oh, yes, we can make bread.” I said, “Okay, we’ll start with that.” If we can make bread, we can make dough and if we can make dough, we can make pizza. That was the idea…

We had this fun part though, which was figuring out pizzas. [Laughs] I cannot remember how I came up with the structure for the brick oven pizza. I think I just kind of did hand motions, “You make a dome with a platform and heat.” [Laughs]…

But I assured him that it would work. “If you build it, they will come.”…

I have to give credit to my sisters who sent me — finally when my mail came in — they know that I like spices so they would send me garlic powder, onion powder, dried basil, thyme and oregano. I think I had gotten a letter off saying, “Hey, I get to do this,” so they sent me all of these spices.

In one of my pictures — I couldn’t find it to bring in today though — was one of Mohammed and I sitting in one portion of the building going through the spices. I would crush it, smell and say, “Basil,” and he would take some, crush it and name it in Arabic. I would write it in English and he would write it in Arabic and when he couldn’t figure out what I was saying or he didn’t know what it was, he said he would take it home to his mom and his mom would tell him what it was. [Laughter]

Then he would go shopping for these spices. I remember him coming in with all of these spices just as proud as can be; he was proud of this different stuff, stuff like tomatoes to make tomato sauce…This was all fresh everything.

[The local Iraqis hired by Karamese] were quick; they [built the brick oven] it in less than three weeks…They totally just took it over. I would not have been able to communicate how well they did it. They put in a thatched roof. They put in a rock garden. They brought canaries. [Laughs]

One of the things that I had asked for was that I wanted a mural on the wall. They brought in this artist and I brought him a picture of like looking through a forest down a path. He started to cry because he had never seen a forest. He said, “I’ve always heard of these places but I have never seen them.” That was the first picture that he’d ever seen. I’ve got the picture of the mural that was on the wall…

So, we went through all of the spices, we get the supplies and we’re ready to start with the pizza. It works phenomenally. We had a trial run, the kitchen is working, the water is running and the gas is going…

They all loved it. They wanted it more spicy. They wanted to make it hot. [Laughs] They added some of the lamb meat. I can’t remember the exact progression but I think at some point because we had a kitchen I got a little crazy with it.

They would bring the bread — it was easier to buy bread then it was to make it. We ended up with rotisserie chicken. We ended up with the kabobs and shaved meat. At some point, we had eggs and I said, “Do you know how to make scrambled eggs?”

Scrambled egg pizza. [Laughter] We would roll it up in the Iraqi bread. I would go get about 12 of them and I’d go back to the tactical operations center (TOC)…It turned into a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner. [Laughs] They started delivering!

…From the moment that we knew that everything worked, we started and it just kind of picked up. People ate some and then people just started showing up. I don’t think we had an official launch. I think I went over and Mohammed had opened up because people kept showing up so we just started working…

I had a marketing plan but it wasn’t a good one because the price point was the problem. We had a lot of money; our Soldiers had a lot of money. Finance was now open where the Soldiers could now go and get cash. In the first couple of months, there was no need for cash because they weren’t going to use it for anything…

We were able to work a compromise on it in a sense that I said, “Well, if you make this much per pizza, is that okay?” He said, “Yes, that’s fine.”

“This much” when I started was at least three dollars for a pizza…they were huge!…And then pizza boxes, you know, to get a pizza stored in…

Three dollars was not a good price for pizza. It was just too cheap. I could not keep people from getting too many pizzas. One person could order more pizzas then we could make in two hours. [Laughs] That made us expand what we offered for things that were faster. That’s how we got into the rotisserie chicken; we knew everybody liked that.

The eggs and even pasta. We were making spaghetti…we would go out and buy the noodles but we’re making the sauce. That was the only way we could keep up with the food requirement versus just the pizza.

Then we ended up getting another pizza oven because the brick oven pizza just wasn’t fast enough; we couldn’t put enough in there…

Less than 30 days; it just boomed…It was happening so fast. It was dizzyingly fast. It was amazing how quick [Mohammed] was able to react. “I think we need another oven.” I’m like, “Okay, yeah, I think so.” And then tomorrow there was another oven. [Laughs] Alright. I guess he was serious…

The Soldiers really enjoyed it. It took off. We also got a bus line going so buses of people were showing up. There were just so many people that we couldn’t hardly keep up…the first guy comes in and says, “I’ll take 10. Here’s 50 dollars and I want 10 pizzas.” I’m like, “Um, yeah, we can’t do that.”

…This particular problem was never fully solved. It just came down to how much supplies you had. Taking orders was something we would do. We would take orders in the line, and when we got to that cut off point where there were no more pizzas, then there were no more pizzas, no matter who ordered it.

There was just no way to equitably distribute the amount of pizzas; the price really didn’t matter. I think we got up to five dollars per pizza and I don’t think he would let me go any higher than that. He said, “This is too much!”

…He was absolutely making money. It showed in the investment. It showed in the people that worked for him. They were making money, but understand how we as the US did not do very well in those initial phases when it comes to money. I mean, there was down side too…nobody told me how much to pay them. I paid them on the US minimum wage scale. Well, I was paying them what doctors get in Iraq comparatively but I didn’t know that…

He probably spent a dollar, a US dollar, on what it took to really make a pizza. He’s making two dollars on a pizza. A dollar was a month’s worth of wages for the normal person…

Pizza delivery — they had to work through that…We would just make pizzas and drive them around. One of the things they didn’t know about pizza was that people like it hot…

You had the whole pork issue so pepperoni wasn’t really pepperoni. I think we gave them a Slim Jim as an idea of a pepperoni. I actually got packaged pepperoni; my sister sent me packaged pepperoni but he couldn’t taste it because it might have pork in it. He was able to smell it and get a sense of it…

It was kind of a lambed base. It was spiced up like sausage more than pepperoni…We had cheese, pepperoni and vegetables. We always had onions and green peppers. We had chicken; I had a chicken pizza. We had eggs, kabobs and the rotisserie chicken. They brought in a lot of their local — I guess they would be considered condiments but they were pickled vegetables…something that you just got on the side, like part of the meal.

Oh, and service, they loved to serve. I was always afraid of the Soldiers being a little rude because sometimes they got a little rude. [Laughs] They handled it very well; they were very gracious…

I had to set up a menu and that wasn’t particularly easy either. When you start writing up a menu, there were so many choices. When I look back on it, I think, “Wow, we were really aggressive with it.” Gordon Ramsey would have said, “Cut your menu!”

…We had one form to fill out because the translation in between the guy taking the order [laughs] and it getting to the kitchen — oh, man!…So I actually had two [menus], the US version and the Iraqi version translated into Arabic.

You would circle and write your number, and we went through a few iterations. A Soldier would circle what they wanted and write the number, he would look at it, compared to the Iraqi one and then translate it on his. It was easier to find somebody that could speak the language enough to be able to take the order. That was the key there.

Q: What ended up happening to the pizza shop?

It’s kind of a sad story. Competition. It wasn’t a level playing field. Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) came in. They came in and set up basically right across the street.

Again, Mohammed was very gracious and understanding, better than I was actually. So, KBR came in and actually we were feeding their people out of my restaurant, to build the competition’s restaurant. [Laughs]

The pizza shop lasted for about six months.

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