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Local soldier cooks up food and morale

By Sharon Osorio

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wbfo/local-wbfo-981449.mp3

North Tonawanda, NY – We're reminded every day of the dangers facing our troops in Afghanistan. But a soldier from North Tonawanda, who just returned from Afghanistan, was serving his country and his fellow soldiers -- serving food, that is. WBFO's Sharon Osorio has the story.

Many of us cannot begin to imagine the grueling conditions of life for our soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. 22-year-old Nathan Arlotta of North Tonawanda just returned from serving 11 months there in Bala Murghab.

"We were in the middle of a mountain valley, so everybody around you had the higher ground, which was pretty dangerous," says Arlotta.

Arlotta is an Army food service specialist. He was one of two Americans working with eight soldiers from Italy to make 1,000 hot meals a day at a dining facility that feeds coalition soldiers. And those meals Arlotta helped serve were part-nourishment, part morale-booster. "It just means the world to these guys," Arlotta says. "They're out there literally getting shot at every day, and just to have a hot meal brings back remembrances of home back in America, so it means the world to them and it's an honor for me to give it to them."

His mother, Mary Beth, says Arlotta would watch the Food Network as a child, and his interest in preparing food grew from there.

"He decided that he liked cooking," says Mary Beth Arlotta. "And he started taking it in high school at the BOCES program. He had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Ihle, who inspired him like I've never seen a teacher inspire Nathan, and that's all he needed was someone to think a lot of him and know he could do good work, and he taught him a lot, and he started cooking."

While cooking for hundreds of soldiers a day sounds challenging, Arlotta says communicating with his Italian counterparts in the kitchen was the toughest part. But he says combining food-forces between the two countries worked well, with each country supplying different ingredients to the cooks. Arlotta says the U.S. was in charge of the meat, with the Air Force airdropping enough of it to make those 1,000 meals a day.

"The way the Italians work is they had choppers come in, back and forth, to bring them food, so they got more fresh produce and more fresh ingredients," says Arlotta. "But they couldn't get meat, and that was one thing that we could always get in was frozen meat all the time."

Arlotta says the menu would vary at the DIFAC, or dining facility.

"We did a lot of steak, we did a lot of grill-outs and stuff, did a lot of roast beef and turkey," Arlotta says. "We did both holiday meals -- Christmas and Thanksgiving -- and we even were able to get it out to the guys out at the outpost that couldn't get fresh meals every day."

And while Arlotta says his Italian colleagues liked sticking to the traditional way of cooking, he and his American comrade did show the Italians a few new recipes.

"They had never tried enchiladas in their life until we introduced it to them," says Arlotta. "They'd never tried honey on chilcken before. They never tried barbecue sauce; we got barbecue sauce out there and we let them try it and they loved it.

But the bread oven built into the facility by previous Italian soldiers ... stole the show.

"Oh, my gosh, the bread was amazing," Arlotta says. "Fresh bread every day, handmade. Everybody would talk about the bread. The bread was just that good."

Arlotta is now home on leave in North Tonawanda, eating the food his mother, Mary Beth, is making. She's happy to have him back at her table.

"I kind of liked the fact that he was cooking because at least he was in the kitchen and not the battlefield with a gun in his hand," says Mary Beth Arlotta. "He had a spoon instead, so it was a little bit of comfort at least."

Still, Arlotta's memories of serving in Afghanistan are fresh and raw. Even though Arlotta is in the States now, he says he continues to look over his shoulder.

"I still catch myself doing it now, being around crowded places, and hearing, for instance, 4th of July was crazy just hearing all the shots go off," says Arlotta. "It freaks you out a little bit."

But the message Arlotta wants people to hear about the military is positive.

"The Army is a great opportunity to better your life, to not only serve your country, but get your foot in the door to other things - school, jobs and getting loans to start businesses," says Arlotta. "And that's what I love about the Army."

Arlotta will return to Fort Carson in Colorado for the rest of his tour of duty. After that he hopes to go to school to get a business degree. No decision yet on whether making food will be on the menu of his future.

Sharon Osorio, WBFO News.