Going the extra meal

By Ken Brodnax
Odessa American

Battle plans are being made for the Odessa Chuck Wagon Gang’s mission to provide a proper welcome home for several thousand troops returning from duty in Iraq.
Feed boss Jerry Hensley said a March 18, 2006, date has been selected for the gang’s barbecue feed for the 11th Armored Cavalry’s homecoming bash at Fort Irwin, Calif. (The 11th Cavalry is known as the Blackhorse Regiment.)
“Like all these projects, it didn’t look that big when it started,” Hensley said.
But now the event involves the Chuck Wagon Gang, the 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia, the Blackhorse Association, the city of Barstow, Calif., the Regimental Support Squadron and the Fort Irwin commanding general and his staff.
And before all is said and done, the gang will feed about 7,000 people. The troops returning from Iraq and their families will be honored guests. Hensley said about 1,000 Vietnam veterans are joining the festivities and will be paying for their meals.
Hensley, who served in the Blackhorse Regiment during Vietnam, said six regimental commanders of the unit plan to attend, including the 52nd colonel of the regiment, Tom White, who served as secretary of the Army during the first term of President George W. Bush.
The commanders plan to be on the serving line, joining Chuck Wagon Gang members in filling the guests’ plates. “We’ll have some generals in attendance as well,” Hensley said.
Hensley said the idea for the feed originated last January after John Poindexter, a former member of the Blackhorse Regiment, had invited other former military members to his ranch near Marfa for a quail hunt.
“Most of us were Vietnam vets,” Hensley explained, “and we got to talking about how our welcome home wasn’t all that swell.”
“We thought we ought to do something,” so Hensley said he brought up the possibility of a Chuck Wagon Gang feed. Several of those in attendance immediately pledged significant sums of money to help with the feed and the ball started rolling.
Hensley said the response to support the feed has been impressive. Permian Tank contributed $20,000 to help defray costs.
The Gang took the unprecedented action to make anyone who contributed $1,000 or more an honorary member of the organization for a year. And, as a sidelight, Hensley said several women who own businesses contributed, thus becoming the first female gang members. “Even though it’s an honorary membership, they’re members,” he said.
Support came from many different sources. A man who served under Hensley as a lieutenant in Vietnam donated $5,000. “We had quite a response from veterans,” Hensley said. “There were lots of $100 contributions. And the American Legion and the Optimist Clubs in Odessa got behind the project.”
The feed boss said the size of the donation doesn’t matter. “We figure $25 will feed a family of four and one plate costs about $8.” Donations can be sent to OCWG 11th Cavalry Homecoming at P.O. Box 12905, Odessa, 79768. Hensley said if donations exceed expenses for the feed, the Chuck Wagon Gang will use the additional funds for future charity feeds.
Plans call for an advance team of 24 Chuck Wagon Gang members to leave March 15 to set up the cooking site and do other preliminary work. The main party, consisting of 45 people including gang members, volunteers and members of the press, will leave March 16, overnight in Las Vegas and then travel to bus to Fort Irwin the day before the feed.
Hensley said Fort Irwin personnel have been extremely helpful with plans. The gang will be allowed to purchase meat and other provisions at the base commissary at military rates, thus saving money.
The gang also plans to “beef up” its average plate for the occasion. “We normally cook a half pound of beef, a four-ounce chicken breast and four ounces of sausage for each plate,” Hensley said. “After talking to people who have fed other troops coming back from overseas, we’re going with three-quarters of a pound of beef, a six-ounce chicken breast and six ounces of sausage. Some of those young troops would probably eat the plate, too.”
Hensley added, “We are trying to do three things with this feed. The first goal is to welcome home troops from Iraq, and we hope this feed will generate some like events.
“Next, we wanted to bring in some new business people into the Chuck Wagon Gang,” he said. “And we wanted to get the gang back into having some fun.”