Early Saturday morning, a convoy set out from the parking lot of a Manhattan hotel and headed for Milford Lake.
Four big trucks lugging trailers took the lead, and more cars and trucks lined up behind them. As the sun came up over the Flint Hills, the convoy — about 15 vehicles total — made its way to a park overlooking the reservoir.
At the site, things happened quickly. The trailers, bearing giant revolving barbecue grills, convection ovens and supplies, parked in formation. Three dozen people spilled out of their vehicles. Big rolling shelves full of plates, utensils, pots, pans and cleaning supplies came out of the trailers and formed a wall. A row of tables popped up, and suddenly an assembly line was trimming and seasoning steaks to prepare them for the grill. Nearby, two 30-gallon pots were filled with corn and put on propane burners. Boxes of rolls, desserts and condiments were unloaded. Pans of cheesy potato casserole went into the ovens. Drink jugs were filled with lemonade and tea. Things started to come together as the crew worked in its industrial-sized outdoor kitchen.
The crew members were volunteers for the All American Beef Battalion, a non-profit group with the simple objective of thanking military troops via a steak dinner.
They moved efficiently, and they had to: in three hours, they would be feeding a group of 500 soldiers and their families. But that wasn’t all. That afternoon, they would split up and go to separate sites for two more feeds. And on Sunday, they would do a fourth. In all, they would serve about 1,700 people in two days.
Bill Broadie, a veteran of the Vietnam War who lives in Ashland, got the idea for the All American Beef Battalion about seven years ago.
Broadie served as a Marine in Vietnam. When he returned, severely wounded, he did not get a warm welcome. In fact, he was literally spat on.
He began to feel similar attitudes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I heard the mainstream media talking about the bad things that happen, but not the good things these kids do,” Broadie said. It reminded him of what he had experienced 40 years earlier, and he decided to find a way to show support to members of the military by offering them steak dinners.
He said he’s not sure how many feeds the group has conducted, but he estimates they have served 170,000 steaks since the organization started five years ago. He said they average two to three events per month and have gone as far as Fort Lee, Va. and Fort Benning, Ga.
The All-American Beef Battalion is a 501c(3) non-profit organization. Not surprisingly, most of the money donated comes from the beef industry. (Broadie himself is a representative for Superior Livestock.)
He said he has also been touched by some young donors, who gave the profits from their 4-H steers to help soldiers.
There are no administrative costs, he said. All of the helpers volunteer their time. Most are from southwest Kansas, although Broadie said there’s also a group based in Texas. Only a few have served in the military themselves.
Broadie said the response from soldiers has been “tremendous.”
“It’s extremely humbling,” he said. “We’re trying to thank them, and they’re thanking us for thanking them.”
Around 11 a.m. Saturday, the park filled with members of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment and their families. The squadron, known as the 1/4 Cav, had returned from nine months in Afghanistan in January.
Many people brought folding chairs or picnic blankets; some got out fishing poles or kites, and children played on the playground.
As noon approached, a line formed near the serving area, and the Beef Battalion began serving the food: corn, potato casserole, desserts, rolls and 20-ounce ribeye steaks.
Afterward, soldiers came to offer hearty handshakes and thanks to the volunteers. Many stayed to enjoy the afternoon with their families, but the Beef Battalion was already at work for the next meals, prepping steaks and reversing the unloading process so they could do it all again, three more times by Sunday.
For more information on the All American Beef Battalion, go to www.steakfortroops.com.