Fellowship over Food: SIGMOs bring Team Vance to the table

  • Published
  • By David Poe
  • 71st FTW Public Affairs
Senior Airman Jacob Chillson felt like he wasn't in the military Aug. 31.

The 71st Operations Support Squadron maintainer traded his uniform for a T-shirt and a comfy pair of jeans. He traded his shop for a very different one - the Community Chapel Activity Center kitchen. He also traded the high-tech communication equipment he normally works for some other difficult devices - spinach and ricotta pinwheels.

One year and one week after he joined the Air Force, his unit hosted Vance's Single International Gourmet Meal Opportunity, or SIGMO, for August.

SIGMOs are monthly, chapel-sponsored events where units across Vance prepare home-cooked meals intended for single and unaccompanied Airmen, as well as for the families of deployed troops. While many base chaplains across the Air Force sponsor community meals, Vance has been the home of the SIGMO for more than 20 years.

On the afternoon of Aug. 31, Chillson joined fellow Ghostriders of varying ranks and positions as they turned meal prep into a military action.

The veteran NCOs worked the inner circle of the system, rolling pasta and laying out the intricate details, while the junior Airmen worked around the outside, keeping hot noodles at arm's length, while checking on the sauces and keeping fresh cheese at the ready.

But still, even with the team's easy synergy in the kitchen, Chillson still didn't feel like he was in the military Aug. 31.

As he slung hot pasta and kept the chatter going in the kitchen, Tech. Sgt. Geoffrey Gagnon, who has spent nearly a third of his military career in the post Overseas Contingency Operations drawn-down military, said he knew that Aug. 31 was indeed a military day and a necessary one. 

"The Air Force is shrinking," Gagnon said as hip-hop music filled the CCAC. "We have less people doing the same stuff we've been doing for 50 years, but now we have less people to do it, so people are inherently busier."

He also said that while today's social media-savvy young Airmen are connecting with the world like no generation prior, they're missing out on the here-and-now benefits of getting to know people in their shop and squadron. SIGMOs are a chance to bridge those gaps by working together in a low-stress environment.

There was no texting or Snapchatting while the 71st OSS Airmen took turns chastening one another in good humor as they churned out pasta delights en masse. Topics ranged from shop talk, to who had tattoos and what, which eventually turned to stories of home and bickering about what state had the best college football teams.

And, while the veteran NCOs were comfortable at the helm, younger Airmen spoke up about ways to make the meal better and how to serve it more efficiently. The older Airmen listened and the process hummed along.

Yet, Airman Chillson still didn't feel like he was in the military Aug. 31.

By the time the food hit the warming plates, more Ghostriders were in the house. A second shift had pulled the entrees from the ovens and even more showed up to help serve.

When the doors opened to the masses, Vance's chief controller was at the front of the line with a serving spoon and a smile as he proudly dished up his Airmen's work to anybody that came his way. Nearby, the squadron commander and his wife mingled with everyone who came through the doors, only after the guests were greeted by his kids who flanked the doorways with welcoming hellos.

"He may work in the hospital, and she may work in a controlled facility," Gagnon said as he pointed out different diners sitting together at the long tables, "and they may not ever cross paths, other than in a grocery store or heading back to their dorm rooms. So you get us together - and fellowship over food? (People have) been doing that for as long as (they've) been eating." 

While the first diners indulged, more young troops meandered from the dorms to the CCAC, while parents, seemingly relieved to not have to spend a night in a kitchen cooking for their flock, toted their young kids through the doors. There the military kids met with young friends old and new and found common grounds that may be harder for them to find with kids outside of the gate.

Student pilots enjoyed moments away from their ready rooms, even if they could only spend a short time away from their study materials, and international student pilots found friendly faces a world away from their own friends and family. One student from Italy didn't seem to care that the sauce was from a jar - the fellowship was authentic.

As the prep crew watched the diners from the kitchen in soundless accomplishment, Gagnon said he hoped his squadron brought more to the table than just a good Italian meal.

"So we've put out some great food," he said. "Maybe we'll get lucky and some people will sit next to each other who haven't met before and people will remember who they served with."

He had one convert - Airman Chillson.

"We all worked together," Chillson said, barely a year after he left his childhood home for a military life he is still discovering. "One person couldn't have put this meal on alone. The Air Force is a family."