By LCDR Chris Coggins, NMCB-11 DET-4 OIC

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (July, 28, 2012) NMCB 11 Det 4 volunteers, Builder Chief (SCW/PJ) Peter Phillips from Atoka, OK, Utilitiesman 3rd Class (SCW) Taylor Cook from Paris, TX, and Engineering Aid Constructionman (SCW) Elizabeth Smith from Jackson, MI make preparations for the ledgendary Camp Vance pizza night. For over 7-months, NMCB 11 Det 4 Seabees have regularly volunteered 3-4 hours a week serving pizzas on Saturday nights to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force - Afghanistan personnel. (U.S. Navy photo by LCDR Chris Coggins/Released)

After being deployed several months and the routine of deployment sets in, one can’t help but experience the “Groundhog Day” phenomenon, where essentially the same day is experienced over and over again.  This feeling of “same stuff – different day” can lead to complacency and low morale when troops don’t have much to look forward to other than more work.  One way the Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 11 – Detachment 4 break up the monotony is through participating in a local Pizza Night event held every Saturday on Camp Vance at Bagram Airfield.

Headquartered out of the Fallen Hero Memorial facility constructed several deployments ago to honor fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines attached to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A), the exact origins of Pizza night are unknown due to frequent turnover of personnel, though it appears that the weekly event has been held on Camp Vance for the last several years.   The centerpiece of the event is a hybrid pizza oven that consists of a traditional Afghan clay bread oven that has been modified to include an Italian style brick cooking surface.  The wood burning oven and eight motivated volunteers are the key ingredients for the successfully weekly event.

Like anything at the CJSOTF-A, Pizza Night is a joint operation.  The Camp Vance Base Defense Operations Center (BDOC), Dining Facility (DFAC), the CJSOTF-A J6 Communications Directorate and NMCB-11 Det-4 are regular contributors and share responsibility amongst the 10 coveted volunteer positions.   Of the eight person crew, two coordinate delivery of authentic naan bread from a local Afghan vendor and collect payment from customers.  One person is responsible for toppings, one manages the music selection in addition to cutting the pizzas and heckling the crowd, one person mans the oven and rotates the pizzas, one applies the pizza sauce and cheese, and two man a secondary grill that produces scrumptious desert pizzas.

Pizza Night volunteer, US Army CPT Adam Pittson, cooks the ledgendary Camp Vance pizza in a wood fired brick oven. The weekly event boosts morale for CJSOTF-A headquarters presonnel and special operations personnel returning from missions in austere conditons throughout Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by LCDR Chris Coggins/Released)

The cooks and volunteers arrive about one hour before the doors open to get the fire started and have coals ready for the nearly 220 pizzas that are cooked on a typical Saturday night.  The DFAC provides marinara sauce, provolone and cheddar cheeses and misc toppings like lamb and sausage and helps deliver them to the site.  The naan bread is delivered by a local Afghan vendor and the “saucer” stages pizzas so customers can requests specific toppings before the pizzas are put in the oven.  A few moments later, the homemade pizzas emerge from the oven with crispy, toasted crust and bubbling melted cheese.

Carrying on the tradition from previous battalions, the Seabees of NMCB-11 Det-4 have volunteered hundreds of hours of service and minor construction improvements to increase the efficiency and throughput of the event, which has steadily increased in popularity since its inception.  The event has become so popular that it often attracts visitors from elsewhere on Bagram, who find an excuse to be on Camp Vance on Saturday nights and wind up with a pizza or two.  More than once the quantity of guests has overwhelmed the residents and volunteers and the event has had to be restricted to Camp Vance personnel only.  Regardless, it is a great social event everyone looks forward to, plus it’s a great break in the routine of 12+ hour workdays and seven day work weeks.  Veterans even come to measure their time remaining in Afghanistan by the number of pizza nights they have left vice the number of calendar days.

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (July, 28, 2012) Servicemembers and civilians attached to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force - Afghanistan wait in line for “PIZZA NIGHT” at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan (U.S. Navy photo by LCDR Chris Coggins/Released)

Steelworker 3rd Class Brice Randall, a Pizza Night volunteer from NMCB-11 Det-4, used his metalworking skills to fabricate a large pizza cutter in the local knife shop.  He also helped construct a custom awning and smoke ventilation system to save the cook and other volunteers from soot covered evenings.  Along with Utilitiesman 3rd Class Taylor Cook and Builder 2nd Class Amanda Glover, Randall also fabricated a set of shelves and installed improved lighting to allow the volunteer crew to work more efficiently and protect volunteers from the elements.   When asked about all the things he and his team did to improve Pizza Night, Randall responded, “Some of the improvements were outside my rate, but they were fun knowing I was contributing to Pizza night.  It’s a huge event around here and gives the folks that have been out in the field awhile something to look forward to”. Other NMCB-11 Det-4 members that have contributed to the event include: Constructionman Elizabeth Smith, Builder 3rd class David Morris, Construction Electrician 3rd Class Jason Ray, Builder 3rd Class Adam Clancy, Steelworker 2nd Class Bradford Jennings, and Builder 1st Class Jeremy Johnson.

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (July, 28, 2012) The famous Camp Vance dessert pizza, adorned with caramelized brown sugar, butter, caramel syrup and apple slices. It’s hard not to eat the profits! (U.S. Navy photo by LCDR Chris Coggins/Released)

Chief Builder Peter Philips and LT Brian Holmes serve as the dessert pizza connoisseurs and chefs, cooking a sweet assortment of pizzas that include caramelized brown sugar, marshmallows, strawberries, bananas, apples, chocolate fudge, melted butter, caramel and powdered sugar.  Although twice the price of a normal pizza, a whopping $2 to cover the costs of obtaining the bread from the vendor, the dessert pizza is worth its weight in gold as is evident by the huge line that typically extends out of the memorial building.  Further evidence of the event’s popularity is that many personnel begin showing up to stand in line over an hour before the first pizzas are served!   Phillips, a regular volunteer, said, “We do everything we can to make folks feel welcome and get a taste of home. We know what it’s like living in austere conditions for month’s on-end without showers, eating MRE’s and sometimes getting sick from the living conditions. It’s awesome to make all these extra preparations to see the smiles before returning to remote locations”

Although the Seabees love serving pizzas, they too are looking forward to the familiar heckle: “Last Timer!” that the crew of volunteers shouts in unison to customers who are patronizing the pizza night for their final time. 

Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11 is home ported out of Gulfport, Mississippi and is deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  Members of NMCB-11 DET-4 support the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) by provided contingency construction and engineering support to Joint and Coalition Special Forces operators located in austere Village Stability Platforms throughout Afghanistan.  To date the Seabees of NMCB-11 DET-4 have conducted over 67 construction and assessment missions in support of CJSOTF-A.  The CJSOTF-A conducts Village Stability Operations and training of Afghan Local Police units throughout Afghanistan in order to liberate rural villages and districts from Taliban influence and enhance ties and cooperation with the provincial and national governments of Afghanistan.

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