The Missouri National Guard cooks that make up the "Grill Sergeants" barbecue team say that competing in cook-offs throughout the year accomplishes more than producing mounds of meat -- it connects the Citizen-Soldiers with a public that often forgets that the Guardsmen are also their friends and neighbors.
"We're just one of them," said Sgt. Dustin Rees, the team's leader and a member of the 1140th Engineer Batallion's Headquarters Company. "We're Soldiers who protect the public, whether it's in Iraq or Afghanistan or during a national emergency. But we're also their friends and neighbors who live next door."
Over the weekend, the "Grill Sergeants" participated in the 7th Annual Jackson Barbecue Cook-Off at Jackson City Park, squaring off against 15 other community teams and competing in the categories of chicken, ribs, pork butt and brisket. The National Guard team took home second place in the pork butt category.
But Rees said, for them, the competition is more about spending time with members of the community.
"These competitions bring the Guard and the public together," Rees said. "Folks come by our tent and thank us for our service and we're also able to answer any questions and give them any information about the Guard that they're looking for. Events like this really strengthen the bond between the Guard and the public."
The "Grill Sergeants" are made up of Rees and fellow cooks Sgt. 1st Class Tom Hammontree, with the 1140th's Forward Support Company, and Staff Sgt. Derek Sides with its Headquarters Company. Recruiter Staff Sgt. Steven Bell and Staff Sgt. Brock Weimer of the 1140th's Headquarters Company are also on the team.
The second-place finish was the best ever for the team, which began competing last year, Bell said.
"We do it for fun, and we have a good time," Bell said. "But it also keeps us out in the public eye. It's important for the public to have a chance to spend time with us and see what we're about. Plus, it shows the skills of our cooks. It's a credit to their training that they can come out here and get second place."
The meat -- valued at more than $300 -- and the smoker were donated by Old Hickory Specialty Meats, which is owned by Jack Whisnant. Whisnant said it was a no-brainer for him to help the Guard when the opportunity presented itself.
"I have strong feelings about supporting the military," Whisnant said. "So when this chance came up, I followed through on it. We're proud of all the National Guard does for us, so it seemed like a good thing for us to do and we did it."
Ennis Hinkebein II agrees. Hinkebein is a member of the Jackson Park Board who also serves as chairman of the barbecue competition. Hinkebein said he was pleased there was a strong military presence at the event. The Guard had its team and there also was a team of Illinois Vietnam veterans in the competition that went by the name of Vets Vittles.
"It's nice to tie the community together with an event that includes veterans and those who are serving in the Armed Forces today," Hinkebein said. "I think it shows that there's more involved than just being in the service. It's not all just gung-ho. It gives the public access to these Soldiers as well as an avenue for the Guardsmen to pursue other activities to have fun."
Such events also raise public awareness about the Guard, he said.
"It gives our community a sense of pride," he said. "We see the Guard men and women there and it makes us proud. We know the sacrifices these men and women make on a daily basis and it gives us a chance to walk up to them and say thanks. That means a lot."
For more information about the Missouri National Guard, please call 1-800-GoGuard or visit www.moguard.com.
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