There's no dress code posted on the door at Fort Campbell, but there's a prevailing uniform in the dining room. Khaki and green are the popular colors. And boots. Boots are big around here.
Photographs hang on the walls, but not the bucolic landscapes and seductive food portraits that so often accessorize restaurants. Here, the centerpiece image in the foyer is a war correspondent's snapshot of a military skirmish, a soldier shadowed in a doorway as dust from an explosion billows through a narrow alley — in Fallujah, perhaps, or some other harrowing theater of war. It would be an unusual design choice for a restaurant, but this is no restaurant. As the unadorned sign out front announces, this is The Oasis Inn, 5th SFG(A) Dining Facility, BLDG 2991 at Fort Campbell — otherwise known as the DFAC.
If you speak military, you know this is the chow line of the Special Forces Group, the quiet corps of elite soldiers who inherited the mantle of mystery from their WWII-era predecessors in the OSS. The 2,500 military men and women who rely on The Oasis for weekday breakfast and lunch are the kind of soldiers who aren't afraid to parachute behind enemy lines in the dead of night to stop the bad guys.
Their motto is nothing less than, "Liberate the Oppressed."
Special Forces don't like to talk about themselves, or so I was told, so I didn't ask a lot of questions on my recent lunchtime embed at the DFAC near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. But one thing is clear, simply from looking at this disproportionately good-looking group of muscle-bound athletes with enviable cheekbones and lunch trays of apples and steamed broccoli: Elite troops don't feed their bodies a bunch of crap. So, if you're Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Windes, the DFAC manager tasked with feeding the 5th SFG(A) when they're not deployed, you better figure out what they do like to eat.
As it turns out, people who treat their bodies like precision weapons don't want to take in a lot of fried foods. They can tear through a salad bar like Grant marching through Richmond. And if the offerings at the fountain-drink line are any indication, they really like Gatorade. Accordingly, the DFAC delivers a remarkably healthy repertoire in what is possibly the most spanking-clean environment I have ever visited.
On the day I dined at The Oasis — the name plays on the fact that the 5th SFG(A)'s area of responsibility is largely in the deserts of the Middle East — Windes was particularly excited about a cake his men had just made for an event that evening. It was frosted with a white background and embellished with the arrowhead-lightning-and-dagger insignia of the Special Forces Group. He was also pleased to see that his team is making progress in getting the pudding and cream to settle in colored layers in the parfaits.
A veteran of both the Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., and the Army's culinary school at Fort Lee, Va., Windes holds designations as jumpmaster and pathfinder. But in his role as DFAC manager, he spends more time costing out menus than jumping out of planes. While the all-you-can-eat lunch at The Oasis costs just $4.55, Windes still is expected to earn a profit on the operation. That means two things: First, he has to deliver a product that attracts customers, since soldiers have multiple dining options, both on and off the post. Second, he has to do it within a budget.
On the day I visited, my four-and-half bucks bought access to unlimited amounts of food, starting with a salad bar, which is positioned right up front. There was also a short-order bar, with grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, fries and baked beans at the ready; a succulent roast at the carving station; pizza made from scratch; a taco bar; bologna and cheese sandwiches on white and wheat bread; tomato-and-rice soup; and an array of pineapple upside-down cakes, gelatin and pudding parfaits, sugar cookies and a soft-serve ice cream machine, with toppings and cones available. It was Asian-food day at the hot bar, with a choice between hamburger yakisoba and sweet-and-sour pork. I opted for the latter, over rice, with a side of steamed broccoli.
How did it taste, you ask? Well, far be it from me to nitpick in the face of heroism. ("Thank you for defending the nation. Your noodles lack flavor. As you were.") But before I had taken the first bite, Windes pre-empted any criticism. "It's designed to be bland on purpose," he said, adding that the recipes all come from a centralized manual, somewhere up the U.S. military's culinary chain of command. "But we have a whole bunch of condiments."
So, maybe The Oasis isn't exactly the culinary avant-garde, but there's plenty of intelligence to be garnered from dining with the military.
First, civilian restaurants could learn a thing or two from The Oasis' hygiene protocols. Remember that photograph of the military skirmish in the Middle East? It hangs directly over a hand-washing sink inside the front door, where all guests at The Oasis scrub in before grabbing a tray and proceeding down the food lines.
Second, a few paces from the sink, a printout of the day's menu lists all calorie counts and fat content. (One cup of hamburger yakisoba: 392 calories, 16 fat grams.) Furthermore, note cards posted on the sneeze guard of the hot bar reiterated the nutrition information. (My one-cup serving of sweet-and-sour pork had 348 calories, 13 grams of fat and 329 milligrams of sodium.)
That's a lot more information than is readily available at a standard-issue restaurant. Still, nothing can substitute for the enthusiastic recommendation of a helpful server. When we turned to the uniformed men behind the steam table to help us whittle down our choices, one tong-wielding soldier simply had this to say: "It's all good, ma'am."
The Oasis serves breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday. The DFAC is open to the public, but guests must obtain a pass to get on the post.