NAVARRE — As they left the Gulf of Mexico in the evenings after the dispiriting, and now suspended, work of trying to find any trace of missing Air Force Staff Sgt. Cole Condiff, the sailors working aboard the Navy’s R/V Patriot likely found some measure of comfort in having a hot meal waiting for them.
The R/V Patriot, equipped with specialized search gear, plied the waters of the Gulf of Mexico near Hurlburt Field around the clock for a week before recovery operations were suspended Nov. 22 in hopes of finding some trace of Condiff, who has not been seen since a Nov. 5 incident the Air Force is calling an “unplanned parachute departure” from a C-130 combat aircraft flying over the gulf.
Shortly after the Navy arrived on scene at Hurlburt Field, where Condiff was part of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, an informal call went out to local restaurants to provide the sailors rotating on and off the R/V Patriot with a hot evening meal.
At least three restaurants in nearby Navarre were ready and eager to respond — Stripes Pub & Grill, Cactus Flower and Where Y’at Seafood Market.
For Paul Ruiz, owner of Where Y’at Seafood Market, providing hot meals to the sailors aboard the R/V Patriot wasn’t at all unusual. A retired Air Force chief master sergeant who worked in communications for 25 years before leaving the service five years ago, Ruiz has been feeding Hurlburt Field airmen for occasions both joyous and somber for a while now.
“It’s usually a shrimp boil,” said Ruiz, although big pots of jambalaya can also find their way from Where Y’at to a Hurlburt gathering. Ruiz’s cuisine will routinely be on hand for Hurlburt deployments, as a last festive moment before an airman leaves his family, and he’ll also provide food for the joyous moments when units come back to Hurlburt after being deployed.
And, sadly, Ruiz has also fed family, friends and teammates when they are mourning the passing of a fallen airman.
With regard to feeding the Navy personnel working on the Condiff recovery effort, Ruiz didn’t wait for word to get out that the sailors returning from a day of searching the Gulf of Mexico could use a hot meal as they stepped ashore.
“I was reaching out to them,” Ruiz said.
Likewise, when word reached Rob Reyes, owner of Stripes Pub & Grill, that the Navy recovery personnel would appreciate a hot meal, he was more than ready.
Reyes has been particularly close to the effort to find some remaining trace of Condiff, because his wife, as a casualty assistance officer at Hurlburt Field, has been working closely with the Condiff family.
Reyes, who spent 23 years in the Air Force, including time aboard the service’s AC-130 gunships, was particularly mindful of the nutritional needs of the sailors. As such, the food he provided — burritos, nachos and shepherd’s pie, for example — was loaded with energy-providing carbohydrates.
“I would do it every day if they needed it,” said Reyes.
Veterans, too, can often be the subject of culinary largess from area restaurants. Just one example among many is a recent dinner hosted by veteran Tom Rice, owner of Magnolia Grill, at the Fort Walton Beach restaurant.
Rice became deeply involved in a recent plan to reunite two old Army buddies, Pete Fengl and Mark Smithwick, who hadn’t seen each other in 50 years. Both men had been stationed in Germany in the late 1960s and became good friends, but lost touch after Fengl was reassigned to Vietnam.
Rice was contacted by local resident Ed Henderson, who knew both men, and early last month, the two old Army buddies and Henderson and his wife sat down to a meal at Magnolia Grill.
As with all of the meals he hosts for special occasions for veterans and active-duty military personnel, Rice said he was privileged to be part of the reunion of Fengl and Smithwick.
It’s all a part, he said, of the simple philosophy that prompts him to honor veterans and military personnel on a regular basis.
“Do a lot of things, and do them the best you can,” he said.
While there might be something magical about bringing two long-ago friends together, especially two long-ago veteran friends, sharing a meal is, in the end, a fairly common way of gathering together, Rice said
“Human beings have been sitting down at a table and sharing bread for a long time,” he said. “It’s just a natural thing to break bread with a friend — and especially, with a veteran.”