Everyone has a story; this week we share the U.S. Army veteran’s story of Dennis McKinney, who served from 1975 to 1984.
as told to Christy Porter, Managing Editor
Veteran Dennis McKinney was born in Enterprise, Ore., on January 8, 1956, and was raised in Bucyrus, Mo. He was the fourth of nine children and had a brother who served in the U.S. Navy.
The family lived in Missouri and Texas, living with his grandparents while McKinney was growing up.
“Mom was a Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma, and my dad was minutely (small amount) Indian, from Independence, Mo.,” shared McKinney, who is Cherokee Indian.
McKinney received his draft card from the U.S. Army, but volunteered to serve in the Army first at the age of 19, mostly to get away, he said.
He had hopes to train as a water purification specialist but that Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was full so he pursued food specialist.
McKinney was a Specialist 5 in the U.S. Army, 1st Infantry Division Artillery, and supplied the essential of life to his comrades, as a cook in food service for 25 years.
“My first day I cooked eggs for 1200 people,” said McKinney. “We served 200-600 people at one sitting; they were coming in and going out.”
His Individual Basic Training was done at Fort Jackson, S.C., beginning in 1975, with the Vietnam Conflict winding down.
His first duty station was Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo.
“There was no prejudice in the Army in the 1970s,” shared McKinney. “You were trained to go to war, and there was no gender bias; male and female were treated equally.”
While stationed at Ft. Leonard Wood, in 1978, Capt. Thomas A. Gerard wrote his mother, “His performance as a cook for Company B, 5 Engineer Battalion at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, is exceptional. His attitude is outstanding and he is a pleasure to have in this company.” The letters of appreciation for “the finest meals” in the field and at base continued through the ’80s.
McKinney served at Ft. Riley, Kan., from 1978 through 1981. While at Ft. Riley he was attached to the 251st Air Defense Artillery Regiment (ADA), a regiment that required top-secret clearance.
“The armed forces would spend 30-60 days in the field, return to base for two weeks, clean up and go back into the field. The training received was the same for all service members even if they didn’t all go into combat.” He remembers, “Being in the field, it was so cold; the weather was always the hardest for me.”
His uniform was cook whites, and he stated, “The hat stayed on; you don’t even think about taking it off while you’re cooking.”
“At Ft. Riley we cooked breakfast and lunch for 800-1000 people, and worked alternating shifts cooking and serving. While out in the field we cooked in tents for the soldiers doing maneuvers.
“I only knew how to cook for large groups of people; the recipe cards were written for 100 people,” said McKinney. “Now it’s heat and serve.”
After service at Ft. Riley he was sent to Korea. While in Korea he served close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with the second division at Camp Casey-Turtle Farm. There was a one-year minimum of service in the country.
McKinney came back to the states from March 1981 through March 1984.
He then again served at Ft. Riley, Kan., from April 1982 through his honorable discharge on April 30, 1984, where he wore a “pickle suit,” an all green uniform.
From September 1982 through October 1982, McKinney participated in NATO Exercise Campaign Reforger (“REturn of FORces to GERmany”) held annually during the Cold War, spending 30-days in the Black Forest of Germany.
“What I remember are the rabbits. I thought I was Alice in Wonderland; these rabbits would feed four to five people,” said McKinney. “That and the concentration camps; you could smell the death and see the atrocities just by what was left.”
His military career was completed in April 1984 with the certification of an Honorable Discharge.
McKinney survives non-combat wounds from his service. A hand injury during basic training caused a staph infection, which led to three weeks isolation and surgery. This led to disability of the hand, and McKinney also suffers hearing loss from shell and canon explosions.
He formed no lasting friendships from his tenure in the military.
After his many years serving our country, McKinney found it difficult to transition back into civilian life. However, his military career gave him the opportunity for special job training, and he got to travel and see new things.
“I got to see the world,” he shared.
“Wars are fought differently today with drones and technology, and the mental games and the physical aspects are not the same. Perhaps there are now ‘too many cooks in the kitchen,’” he shared.
“Looking back, I should have taken a 20-year retirement and then went into civil service,” observed McKinney.
He took advantage of the G.I. Bill for culinary training. He also took advantage of the VA Home Buying assistance.
After reentering civilian life, he continued food service at the hospital at Ft. Leonard Wood, and then worked for the Department of Defense, retiring from the DOD in January 2016. McKinney’s training continued at the DOD, and he continued to be recognized for his service. He received multiple Certificates of Appreciation and Achievement, Outstanding Performance and World Class Customer Service, including twice being recognized for preparation of National Native American Meals.
U.S. Army SP/5 Dennis Ray McKinney has a brick placed at the Cherokee Memorial Monument in Tahlequah, Okla., and the sincere gratitude of the Cherokee Nation Office of Veterans Affairs.
Military honors and medals include: Good Conduct, Overseas Medal, AIT Special Training, Cherokee Warrior Award, Honorable Discharge.
He has three daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren who live in Oklahoma.