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USO Salutes Military Chefs' Culinary Creativity

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Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and World Wrestling Entertainment personalities Mark Henry and Layla El presented the enlisted aide of the year award to Marine Corps Master Sgt. Brian Brazil.

"One of the greatest strengths of our nation is its diversity, and therefore, one of the greatest strengths of our military is its diversity. You got a first-class showing of that tonight," Winnefeld said.

Since 1997, the USO of Metropolitan Washington has celebrated the culinary skill and creativity of military chefs, and the offices of the president, vice president, secretary of defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff nominate the honorees.

Henry, dubbed the "World's Strongest Man," and WWE "SmackDown" diva Layla presented Brazil the WWE championship ring and title, the organization's most prestigious recognition.

"I've always had pride in the country as an athlete. Friends of mine were in the military, and I appreciated what they were doing," Henry said. "I'm not out there on the front lines, so the least I can do is give [military members] a sense of normalcy."

The recognition and thanks from senior leaders, celebrities, friends and families resonated with the chef honorees.

Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Pedro Marrerocruz, an Aricebo, Puerto Rico, native, credited his mother for sparking his interest in cooking and shared thoughts of his recognition.

"We're always behind the scenes making everything look good, taste good, so it's a privilege to be here and recognized by our senior leaders," Marrerocruz said.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sarah Morgan of Air Force Global Strike Command said she honed her culinary skills as a short-order cook in the missile fields.

"I'm around such highly professional people here, and the food they're producing is out of this world," Morgan said. "You can always shoot for your stars and keep striving, ... and if you want to become a chef, be the best one you can be."

Navy Chief Petty Officer Josh Ryan, a chef of five years for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, said working for higher-ups gets less daunting as time goes by.

"The pressure is gone," Ryan said. "Now it's like cooking for my family every day."

Actor Lou Diamond Phillips also attended the event to give personal thanks to each of the honorees and nominees.

"These are the unsung heroes, the people behind the scenes, and many people aren't aware that this is a real career path you can take in the military," Phillips said.

A self-described "military brat" born on Subic Bay U.S. Naval Station in the Philippines, Phillips said his upbringing and current work on the Military Channel's "An Officer and a Movie" have strengthened his ties with the military.

"For me, it has been about constant respect of the contributions of our people in military service," Phillips said. "It's incumbent on me to shine the spotlight on people who are very deserving and to use my celebrity for a good thing."

Despite the gala's success, event host Elaine Rogers, president and chief executive officer for the Metropolitan Washington USO, said the USO has many more layers than events and celebrity appearances.

"We have programs focused on young enlisted families, from housing to food and supply assistance," Rogers said. She added that the organization now is taking on its largest endeavor to date with the construction of a 25,000-square-foot USO facility at Fort Belvoir, Va., for wounded warriors and their caregivers in addition to an 18,000-square-foot facility at Bethesda, Md.

"Our job is really to bring that touch of home, working with the military and their families to bring them what's truly needed," Rogers said. "It is such an honor for the USO to serve them as the only congressionally-chartered organization to meet the morale and welfare needs of military personnel and their families."

Military Chef of the Year nominees include:

-- Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Sherrol Samuels, nominated by the president;

-- Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Cortez Ziegler-Brown, nominated by the vice president;

-- Navy Chief Petty Officer Josh Ryan, nominated by the chief of naval operations;

-- Army Spc. Kevin Arwood, nominated by the secretary of defense;

-- Army Spc. Javier Muniz, nominated by the Army chief of staff;

-- Army Staff Sgt. Gabriel Aquilano, nominated the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff;

-- Air Force Master Sgt. Jennifer Shown, nominated by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff;

-- Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sarah Morgan, nominated by the Air Force Global Strike Command commander;

-- Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Pedro Marrerocruz, nominated by the Marine Corps commandant; and

-- Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Saiyasak, nominated by the Coast Guard commandant.

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Andrew Donahue was named Enlisted Aide of the Year. Other nominees were Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Flemister, Navy Chief Petty Officer Michael Edwards, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Gregory Krems and Marine Corps Master Sgt. Brian Brazil. Related Sites:

United Service Organizations [ http://www.uso.org/ ]