Over a decade after first joining the army in 1992, Scott Shore served as convoy commander of the very first unit to Iraq in 2003, stationed in what he calls "the wild west of Baghdad." For the first six months he was there, encountering snipers and bombs daily, he was not allowed to contact his wife, Shawna, to let her know he was alive. Six more months of chronic fire took its toll on his body, and he left the service in November of 2004.
"I've got a laundry list of injuries," Shore tells me over the phone recently. "For nine years, I've been in constant pain."
But despite sustaining severe back and neck injuries, broken ribs and clavicle, and a traumatic brain injury, Shore misses the military. Which is why just a few weeks ago, he joined a handful of other vets at boot camp.
Instead of fatigues, however, they dressed in tall white hats and coats. Instead of surveillance and scuttling, they spoke of dashes of spices and slicing on the diagonal. Wielding paring knives and spatulas, six vets and their spouses learned how to trim duck breasts and make soup stock at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena.
The CIA and the military go way back—to 1946, when its original New York location was founded as a vocational training school for returning World War II vets. Now the prestigious school offers culinary boot camps for vets of Iraq and Afghanistan who were wounded in the line of duty.
The boot camp is just one of the 18 different programs sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit serving vets who were injured after Sept. 11, 2001. Founded by a group of post-9-11 vets in 2003, the project is devoted to helping vets transition back to civilian life, because, as their motto goes, "The greatest casualty is being forgotten."
Admirably nonpartisan ("It's about the warrior, not the war"), the nonprofit has been a boon to Shore, who was reluctant to partake of their services. "I didn't think I deserved to take the spot of someone worse off than me," says Shore, who was unemployed for four years and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
For Shore, who is the main cook in his house, the boot camp was a chance to connect with other vets, sharing stories as well as tips for negotiating the notoriously nightmarish VA. (Eight years after filing his disability paperwork, the VA has finally recognized and compensated him).
After a morning of lectures and demos, vets at the five-day boot camp spend the afternoon applying their chopping, roasting and braising techniques to all manner of poultry, pork and potatoes. They end the day with a shared meal—indeed, a more nutritious and flavorful one than the mess hall variety.
"There is no slacking, and they come prepared," says CIA instructor chef Lars Kronmark, who is impressed that some vets bring their own knives, utensils and, in the case of a vet with only one hand, a specially designed cutting board. "It had spikes that acted as his holding hand," Kronmark marvels, "so he was still able to chop everything."
The boot camps are held in the CIA's quieter first-floor Viking kitchen because, as Kronmark points out, "the vets are often sensitive to sudden loud noises." Amid the stainless steel equipment that's turned many amateurs into star chefs, vets learn more than how to make pomegranate glaze and fish tacos.
"The boot camp gave me the confidence to eat healthier," says 26-year-old Manny Del Rio, who joined the Navy in 2004, right out of high school.
Del Rio was stationed on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Japan when a jet ran over his leg. "I could see the tire coming up against the back of my heel," says Del Rio, who was pinned beneath the jet for a full 20 minutes, the loud drone of the engine drowning out his screams. Del Rio didn't know his lower right leg had been amputated on the ship until a doctor on the mainland told him days later.
Physical injuries like his often lead to inactivity and depression, making vets especially vulnerable to unhealthy eating habits, obesity and heart disease. Though Del Rio is grateful for the ability to navigate stairs ("Having a knee makes all the difference"), he had become accustomed to eating takeout and frozen, prepackaged food. "Cooking my own food," he realizes, "is healthier and cheaper."
Del Rio, who's lost 25 pounds since attending the boot camp six months ago, also appreciated the sense of camaraderie the class rekindled from his days on the ship, when everyone worked together toward one goal. "I loved working as a team again," he tells me. "It was also interesting to see how other vets cope with all kinds of different trauma, especially the kind you can't see."
Indeed, for vets like 32-year-old Melissa Gonzalez, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan, their injuries are often camouflaged. "I used to bake and cook all the time," says Gonzalez, who spent months relearning basic speech and cognitive abilities. "I'd lost that love and confidence."
In addition to learning how to poach and sauté, she left the boot camp armed with an arsenal of recipes. Though she knows she will never fully recover, "I got my confidence back," Gonzalez says. "The Wounded Warrior Project encourages vets to overcome their disabilities and get back to life."
Both Shore and Del Rio, who have kept in touch with vets they met in class, echo this sentiment.
"We all struggle," Shore tells me, "which means we can all help each other."