GULFPORT, Mississippi - If you're ever stuck in the desert, you'd better hope you're near Petty Officer 1st Class Steven C. Cheaney. While serving as a 2nd Class Petty Officer mess cook for Naval Mobile Construction Battalion-74 (Seabees) attached to the 3rd Marine Air Wing in Kuwait, Petty Officer Cheaney worked every angle to get decent chow to the Seabees as they built a Marine air base. It meant not being satisfied with getting the troops three squares a day but getting the best meals available.
While the Air Force had an excellent dining facility nearby, the Seabees seldom saw the inside of it – they ate all meals at the project site. Petty Officer Cheaney swapped out MREs for hot meals and tirelessly worked the Air Force system to get his Seabees hot chocolate, fresh fruit, cookies, bottled fruit drinks and midnight rations.
The efforts of Petty Officer Cheaney were crucial for a battalion that worked arduous 14- to 16-hour days in the hot desert sun and nights in the freezing, stiff desert wind, building a 21-acre parking apron for Marine F/A-18 Hornets to conduct close-air support missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The project was the largest battalion undertaking in three decades, and the Seabees did it in a remarkable three months. "The only thing they had to look forward to each day were their meals, and he did whatever it took to support the troops and make their lives better," said one officer. And it was more than just the good chow, it was his example, the way he cared which lifted morale.
According to his executive officer, "Petty Officer Cheaney's unrelenting positive attitude and tireless efforts working longer hours than those on the project site, from the first of the morning to the last at night, is what got the guys through the job." His commanding officer said, "If one agrees with Gen. Colin Powell's lesson 12 from his Leadership Primer that 'Perpetual optimism is a force-multiplier,' then Petty Officer Cheaney is the best force-multiplier I've got. All too often the magnificent and dedicated contributions of the support positions behind the scenes are overlooked. Petty Officer Cheaney was every bit as important to the success of this project as was my most knowledgeable builder." That's quite a compliment when you are in a 670 troop-sized construction unit.
From November through January, the battalion worked every day – taking only Christmas Day off – and delivered the project on schedule. After completing the work, the battalion relocated to a Tactical Assembly Area, where the Seabees built Camp 93 while living in challenging field conditions. At the time, the host nation was contracted to provide meal services, but those services were delayed due to the rapid infusion of troops into Kuwait. Again stepping up to the role of a more senior NCO, Petty Officer Cheaney delivered more than just MREs, securing the Seabees breakfast cereal and pastries, milk, yogurt, fresh fruit, juices, peanut butter and jelly and other special items not readily available.
"It's often the simple things that can make a world of difference in a sailor's day," said one officer. "In that harsh environment, he kept our spirit up and supported us in very way. He was an inspiration," said one Seabee. Navy Seabees and others involved in logistical and support roles often go without accolades. Even among the Seabees, equipment operators, engineers and steelworkers usually get the recognition. And the role of a Navy cook is often a particularly thankless job. "But here you have a Navy Cook who loves his job of taking care of teammates, and whose dedication and attitude made a huge impact and difference," said his executive officer.
Petty Officer 1st Class Steven C. Cheaney, the man who fed the troops and buoyed their spirits during a tough time in the desert, is a true unsung hero behind our unsung heroes.