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MREs for 200,000?

Army food service director Lt. Col. Don Vtipil ('84) serves three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan
Story by Charlotte Dombrower ('05)
Photos courtesy of Don Vtipil ('84)

April 26, 2006—Since this feature posted, Madison magazine received the following update:

Don Vtipil ('84), director at the Army Center for Excellence, Subsistence at Fort Lee, retired in April 2006, after 22 years of service. "Throughout his career, Don has served in all parts of food service, and he is a master of his craft. He has always been able to step to the front of the ranks when the toughest jobs were at hand," said Brig. Gen. Mark A. Bellini, commandant of the Quartermaster Center and School at Vtipil's retirement ceremony at Fort Lee. Vtipil's duty assignments included Fort Bragg, Fort Monroe, Korea, Germany and operations in Panama, Honduras, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. He received certificate appreciation for outstanding support from the Quartermaster Center and School along with a certificate of appreciation for service in the U.S. Armed Forces, the Legion of Merit and his certificate of retirement.

Lt. Col. Don Vtipil ('84) of Fort Lee, Va., returned from his third tour in Iraq and Afghanistan in summer 2005. Vtipil has served the army for 21 years. During his military career, he has visited 41 states and 30 countries. He has been stationed with his family in Fort Lee; Fort Bragg, N. C.; Tageu, South Korea; Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala.; Fort Monroe, Va.; and Wiesbaden, Germany. He has also been deployed to Bosnia, Greece, Honduras and Panama as part of operations in support of Kosovo. For Vtipil, the last 21 years have been quite a journey — a journey that began in Harrisonburg at JMU's Army ROTC program.

Lt. Col. Don Vtipil ('84) holds JMU sign - 6453 miles to Harrisonburg

ROTC's Green to Gold Program a great opportunity

Vtipil graduated from the ROTC program in 1984 not knowing what his future would hold. He was motivated to join the program when he first arrived at JMU. Soon afterwards, he received a scholarship through the ROTC's Green to Gold Programs. "I saw this as a great opportunity to help pay for my education and at the same time serve my nation," says Vtipil.

After completing the program, Vtipil knew he had a four-year commitment to the military ahead of him. He thought that he would simply serve his four years and move on to something else. However, this wasn't the case. "Once I was in the Army and put on the uniform, I realized the importance of what I had signed up for, and the rest they say, is history," says Vtipil. "The ability to serve our nation and protect its freedom became my number one priority and that still remains today. There are thousands of us that take that oath every day, and we are proud to serve and defend that freedom."

Equipped to do the job

The lieutenant colonel says that the ROTC program left him well prepared to serve in the army. "When I arrived at my first assignment after graduating from the program, I found myself leap years ahead of my peers," he says. "From physical fitness training to leaderships skills, the program equipped me with everything I needed to do my job."

$500 million budget; 345 dining facilities; 5,000 trainees per year

As Army food service director, Vtipil is responsible for the direction of the Army food service program with an operating budget of more than $500 million. He directs the business strategy development and implementation of the Army food budget with oversight of 345 dining facilities worldwide, including making sure that the soldiers in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan are fed properly. He explains, "The only way to ensure the distribution and preparation of food is done correctly is to be on the ground to assess it. So, during my trips to Iraq, I have served as the food management assistance team chief, reporting directly to the commanders on the ground."

Vtipil's other duties include directing, coordinating and supervising the resident and nonresident training of Army officers, noncommissioned officers, soldiers, civilians and entry-level U.S. Marine Corps cooks in field and garrison food service operations. He trains more than 5,000 students per year and is responsible for research, development and coordination of Army-specific programs in acquisition, fielding, food service equipment, ration development and testing. He also develops and publishes Army food service doctrine, policy and regulatory procedures for wartime and peacetime operations.

Learning the value of a hot meal

Vtipil acknowledges that his role in the military has been both a humbling and challenging job. "We have learned in Iraq that a high quality hot meal in that environment is a huge morale booster for our soldiers," he says. "Just think of having 200,000 of your closest friends over for dinner tonight, and you can quickly imagine how big of a mission food service is in that part of the world."

Getting the job done

After serving in Iraq, Vtipil returned to the United States full of pride in his country and his fellow soldiers. "I learned in even more depth that our nation is based on preserving freedom, not only at home, but for others that are struggling under oppression," he says. "Day in and day out, our soldiers are putting their lives on the line to keep that dream alive. They do not complain, but wake up every morning, strap their boots on and get the job done."

Lt. Col. Don Vtipil ('84)

Hardships in Iraq and at home

Vtipil admits that the most difficult thing about serving in Iraq was the oppressive heat. "No matter how many times you get to take a shower, when you walk out into the blazing sun, it hits you like a wall," he says. According to Vtipil, the temperature in Iraq was usually around a scorching 125 degrees.

It was equally as hard to be away from his family. "You cannot get that time back, and there are a lot of things that go on while you are gone—first dates, proms, soccer games. While you may have them on video, it doesn't replace being there," he admits. "That tugs at your heart everyday."

Families who patiently await the safe return of their loved ones from Iraq also feel the pain. Unfortunately, there is always gut-wrenching apprehension when families hear an announcement on TV that another soldier has been injured or killed. "For the next 24 or 48 hours, every relative that has a soldier serving in harms way worries that the knock on the door may be a sound they don't want to hear," says Vtipil.

Looking at the big picture

Vtipil gets through the hardships of serving in Iraq by maintaining his passion for what he does, appreciating the military's accomplishments in Iraq and looking at the big picture. "The most rewarding thing about serving in Iraq and serving my nation is the simple fact that progress is being made in that country. Everyday, you could witness life returning to normal. New businesses opened, and people were returning to work," he says.

Vtipil concludes that serving in the military has been well worth the constraints it has put on his life: "I simply love wearing the uniform and have not regretted a single day of it," he says proudly.

Contact Lt. Col. Vtipil:
Director, Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence
Fort Lee, Va.