Julio Gerena is in a wheelchair, his long career in the U.S. Navy and Army forever behind him. But the 52-year-old recaptured some of the old military camaraderie while peeling potatoes and chopping cilantro in a crowded kitchen.
Gerena was among the first 16 wounded veterans who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to take part in a healthy cooking "boot camp" sponsored by the advocacy group Wounded Warrior Project. Former service members once consumed with patrols and sentry posts learned how to poach and saute at the Culinary Institute of America, the renowned cooking school on the Hudson River.
The veterans learned some kitchen tips, but seemed to enjoy even more the chance to spend four intense days with people who have faced similar hurdles.
"There are some things you can't really get into words, but the Wounded Warrior program is to me what being in uniform was before: the camaraderie, the trust," Gerena said after a long morning in the kitchen. "I met some of these people just a few days ago, but I share what they went through."
The Jacksonville, Fla.-based organization runs a range of programs for wounded veterans at locations ranging from college campuses to ski slopes. The group brought its first batch of veterans into the kitchen last week in partnership with the culinary institute. Most of the students served in the Army, but the Navy and the Marines were also represented. Their service-related wounds ranged from spinal cord injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Over four days, they were lectured on the finer points of knife work or braising before heading to a classroom kitchen to turn the lesson into something edible for lunch or dinner.
On a recent morning, the veterans scrambled to pan-sear salmon and saute chicken breasts under the guidance of Chef John DeShetler. As they clattered pans and joked about a return to kitchen patrol duty, DeShetler shouted out tips on carrot dicing and meat slicing.
"Now this is a flank steak! There's only two per animal, that's why they're so damn expensive...! They used to give this away!" DeShetler bellowed.
As DeShetler walked the kitchen, 24-year-old Steve Bohn carefully sauteed mushrooms for a ragout in a pan.
The Peabody, Mass., resident had cooked for a Whole Foods Market before the death of close friend in Iraq inspired him to join the Army in 2007. Bohn was severely injured the next year in Afghanistan when a dump truck packed with explosives collapsed the building he was in. He suffered severe spinal injuries and required reconstructive bladder surgery.
Bohn no longer needs a leg brace but he still had a hitch to his step as he moved through the kitchen. He knows that he cannot resume his old kitchen career because he can't stand for long or lift heavy boxes. But he liked the feeling of pushing his limits and being behind a burner again.
"I lost the passion, kind of, after going to war and going through all that. I just want to get the passion back," he said.
The veterans came to the school north of New York City from around the Northeast and were assigned to one of four teams. Each team had to work together to execute a different recipe representing a balanced meal. The parallels to the military practice of assigning set teams to specified tasks was intentional, even if the mission here was to make a decent lunch.
While they want to teach veterans how to cook healthier _ a particular concern for those with limited mobility _ Wounded Warrior spokesman Pete Cataldo said they also want to give participants a chance to bond with each other. Like all Wounded Warrior programs, the culinary course is ultimately designed to "honor and empower" the veterans.
"They kind of draw veterans together instead of letting us kind of sink into the cracks. They're there," Gerena said. "If they don't hear from you, I always get a call, `Hey, what's going on? How are you doing?'"
Gerena joined the Navy as a teen in 1976 and later did a stint in the Army Reserves. He was called back into active duty in 2004. He doesn't like to talk about his shoulder and back injuries. But he was hurt stateside and required surgeries before a decline that led to the wheelchair. He had been in law enforcement around New Orleans in his civilian life, but could no longer do that after his injury.
Gerena moved back to his family in New York City, where he said he can feel a sense of isolation rolling down a busy sidewalk. "Like a ghost," he said.
"Maybe because it's New York City ... I'm not that small a person in a wheelchair, but it just seems like I'm invisible to them, or sometimes maybe even a nuisance. Rush hour, wall of traffic, you get a wall of people walking at you, he's trying to get home, too. The Wounded Warrior Project stops that."
Wounded Warrior and the culinary institute will run two more boot camps at Hyde Park in March. There are hopes to expand the program to the culinary institute's campuses in northern California and San Antonio.
This first group finished up Friday, but not before getting to eat their own creations of sauteed pork cutlets and cilantro-lime brown rice pilaf. And they received a new uniform: white chef's tunic with a Wounded Warriors patch.
"I do want to take better control of my diet," Gerena said. "My mother's old school: rice and beans and meat. That's what I was growing up with. ... Probably will go home and be more confident to take over."