Michigan National Guard soldiers served bad food while guarding U.S. Capitol

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Soldiers with the Michigan National Guard are complaining about bad food they've been served while providing security at the U.S. Capitol, ranging from undercooked meat to contaminated food.

The complaints reached members of the Michigan congressional delegation and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose office said she called Acting Secretary of the Army John E. Whitley about the problem on Feb. 17 — nearly two weeks ago — as soon as the first reports of the food were received.

The governor was assured the problem would be corrected, and guard officials last week told lawmakers the issue had been resolved. That was followed by another round of complaints over the weekend — again of poorly prepared and undercooked food, Whitmer's office said.

The service members, who often stand outdoors for shifts of up to 12 hours, are increasingly spending their own money to eat because they don't trust the food from the contractor, lawmakers say.

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"It’s not only a Michigan guard problem. I stop and talk to all the guard out there, and they said it’s improved, but still far from perfect," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat who has been visiting the soldiers every couple of days.

"Ultimately, it’s the National Guard that hired the contractor — not those of us on the Hill."

All 14 members of the Michigan House delegation signed a letter Tuesday asking the National Guard to void the food service contract and find another vendor, or that service members be paid a per diem for meals for their remaining time in Washington. 

"It is completely unacceptable that our men and women serving in Washington, D.C., are being hospitalized due to the food they are being provided," the lawmakers wrote.

Michigan National Guard members who are helping secure the U.S. Capitol have complained about receiving meals in which the meat was undercooked or contaminated.

National Guard officials said Tuesday they are working to fix the issues with contractors but stressed that the matter is limited to a small number of incidents with undercooked catered meals. 

Officials have had no substantiated complaints about foreign objects in the food, and no cases of foodborne illness reported, said Lt. Col. Robert Carver, a spokesman for the joint task force that commands the Capitol security mission.

"There are problems, but it’s not systemic," Carver said, noting that less than 0.01% of 1.2 million meals provided from Jan. 6 through Feb. 18 appeared to be undercooked. 

Officials are visiting the caterers' place business, spot checking the meals, checking the cooking temperature and examining the kitchens for safety and cleanliness, he said.

"So far we haven't found substantial issues that we've recorded," said Carver, who provided redacted examples of the inspection reports to a reporter. 

"The contractors know that we are watching, and they have been cooperative and responsive to our concerns."

In one message to a lawmaker, a soldier last month reported that meat served with lunch and dinner was almost always undercooked and sat in its packaging for hours before reaching the troops. 

"Multiple soldiers have been getting sick and vomiting after eating, and most of the food is being thrown away," according to the message. "Morale is very bad; many have served overseas and cannot believe the quality of food they are being fed here."

Other complaints included lunch arriving many hours late, a lack of options for vegetarians, and breakfasts consisting of a piece of fruit and a hard roll without any protein. Vegetarians were instructed to remove the meat and to eat the sides served with the meals.

"What I was told is, if they had 10 meals, they were throwing four or five of them away — they couldn't even eat them," said U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican who joined the troops for lunch outside the Capitol on Thursday. 

Over the weekend, service members reported finding metal shavings in their food, and at least 74 meals were tossed out and later replaced by MREs, according to the office of Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield. Carver said this complaint is unsubstantiated.

Huizenga and other Michigan lawmakers said they started making calls when complaints began in mid-February. Lawrence said she plans to have dinner with Michigan soldiers this week to see if the situation has improved. "We've had some challenges with the food," she said.

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, eats lunch with Michigan National Guard troops on the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Nearly 1,000 soldiers from the Michigan National Guard are helping to provide security at the Capitol after the violent attack on the building that left five people dead on Jan. 6.

Michigan troops make up about 20% of the 5,200 guard soldiers and airmen supporting civilian law enforcement at the Capitol. The Michigan guard's deployment is set to end March 12.

A spokeswoman for the Michigan National Guard said the reports of bad food provided to service members in Washington were "very concerning." 

"The firsthand accounts and pictures of undercooked food being served clearly shows that what is being given to Michigan’s service members is unacceptable," the spokeswoman said. 

She stressed that senior Michigan leaders had contacted the federal government to express their displeasure. "Every assurance was given that the issue would be addressed and corrected," she said.

The Michigan guard noted the food contract was awarded and is monitored by the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon, and that Michigan’s Adjutant General, Major Gen. Paul Rogers, has communicated all concerns directly to Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard. 

Carver of the joint task force at the Capitol said the National Guard takes the issue seriously and will continue to monitor the situation to ensure the well-being of the guard. 

"If they aren't well enough to perform the mission because they're getting substandard food, that's absolutely unacceptable, and you're not going to find a leader who thinks otherwise," Carver said. 

"So it behooves us to make sure that we're checking our food for the highest quality and if there are complaints, if there are substantiated problems, then we need to work with the contractors to fix those. And that's what we're doing."

He reiterated that the "vast majority" of meals served to soldiers and airmen were fine. 

"Where we have seen issues, we've addressed them, and we continue to do quality-control checks to make sure that problems don't recur, or new problems don't pop up," Carver said.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Bloomfield Township Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants the food contracts canceled immediately and for the service members to receive a per diem for the remainder of their mission, as well as retroactive per diem.

Peters, who chairs the Homeland Security panel, wrote Monday to Whitley and Hokanson to express his frustration, demanding a swift resolution to the issue "after several attempts to rectify the situation and little progress." 

"While I understand the ad hoc nature of these deployments and appreciate the tremendous efforts made by many of those under your command, it is simply unacceptable that these men and women are being fed chicken with the feathers still attached and raw ground beef and then, to add insult to injury, they are forced to purchase food with their own money," Peters wrote.

Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, also wrote to Hokanson Tuesday urging that he remedy the situation. 

"Our troops don't demand a 5-star resort or expensive food, but at a minimum, they deserve meals that are safe to consume," said Bergman, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general. "This is an embarrassment for all those responsible for the care of our troops, and must be met with full accountability."

Whitmer's office said she had conditioned the extended deployment of the Michigan guard to Washington on their having proper housing and food.

U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, meet with members of the Michigan National Guard who are providing security at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Whitmer sent Rogers to Washington to meet and dine with the guard after the first reports of the bad food, according to her office. The governor also reached out to bring the matter to the attention of Dingell, who got House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office involved, she said.  

After Dingell said she contacted the House speaker again and Pelosi weighed in a second time, the troops started getting protein in their breakfast Thursday in the form of hard-boiled eggs. 

"She said she would do what she could to help the situation because it was unacceptable," Dingell said. 

"She, too, has been very clear that we need to treat these men and women with respect and integrity and make sure they are being taken care of while they are protecting us."