Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are generally considered an aspect of the American dream. However, according to Deloitte studies, only 13% of Americans are passionate about their careers. Artillery Sergeant. Michael D. Watts, a catering specialist and acting enlisted aide for Commander, Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, Marine Forces Command, Marine Forces Northern Command, found himself among the few to turn a hobby into a a profession he loves.
Watts grew up in the Salt Lake City metropolitan suburb known as Sandy, Utah. He was the eldest of five boys, each born with a disability. Watts had to take on a parenting role prematurely in order to care for her siblings throughout her youth.
“I developed a lot of responsibility and maturity at a young age,” Watts continued. “I had to grow up faster, being the eldest and having a family with many disabilities, but that’s life. It really developed who I am.
At 14 and with an ever-increasing sense of responsibility, Watts started working at a Chinese restaurant called Hong Kong Cafe. He was quickly promoted to line cook and discovered a new passion. Due to the influence of the guard on her life, cooking was like second nature.
“When I served people food, I enjoyed the satisfaction of giving to others,” Watts said. “I applied to put some extra money in my pocket, but it turned out that I really liked my job.”
While working at the Hong Kong Cafe and continuing to help out his family, Watts played drums in his spare time. Music has become an outlet for freedom and expression. After immense practice, he got a scholarship to play in the drum line at the University of Utah. Watts was thrilled with this new opportunity, but it wouldn’t give him the sense of purpose he was looking for outside of his routine of work, family and school. After constantly putting others first, he decided to talk to a local U.S. Marine Corps recruiter about playing for the Marine Corps Band in hopes of expanding his horizons beyond his hometown.
“Once people saw how well I could cook and manage my time, they gave me more responsibilities like teaching and being a chef while I was a corporal.” Artillery Sergeant. Michael D. Watts
“The auditions were extremely difficult…” Watts said. “…you were expected to take a sheet of music paper that you had never played before and perform it perfectly!” I realized it wasn’t going to work, but my recruiter saw potential in me. I told him that if I couldn’t be in the Marine Corps Band, I would join as a cook. He thought I was crazy because I had a very high overall technical composite score, which allowed me to get any job I wanted. However, my reasoning was simple, I would prefer to choose a job that I already know and that I am confident I can excel at.
Watts enlisted in the spring of 2005 from the recruiting station in Salt Lake City, Utah. After three months at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, he earned the title of United States Marine. He continued his training until reaching school for his military occupation specialty at Fort Lee, Virginia. Watts wasn’t sure what to expect as a catering specialist, but he was convinced this job was for him. He had no idea how right he was.
“Once people saw how well I could cook and manage my time, they gave me more responsibilities like teaching and being a chef while I was a corporal,” Watts said, “I also led field operations who is a Sergeant and Staff Sergeant Housing. It was a lot to deal with for a young Marine. After being consistently placed in higher positions, I began to realize that I excelled in my job.
Watts was placed in many roles that tested his limits and critical thinking ability. Cooking may have come easy for him, but the amount of problem solving he had to overcome never stopped.
“I did two tours in Iraq between 2006 and 2008, where I did patrols and made sure the Marines were fed to keep marching,” Watts recalled. “Using the field equipment was a challenge in itself. I had to make sure that if I had to cook a meal on a rock in the desert, I would be able to do it. We (catering specialists) are the only source of fuel to run the Marine Corps. Without food, how could we gather the energy necessary to fight? »
The duties of food service specialists within the Marine Corps go beyond cooking and cleaning in a lunchroom. They are responsible for ordering supplies from contracted dealers, stocking supplies needed for consumption, and keeping detailed inventory records. As with other MOS in the Marine Corps, these tasks accumulate and can risk life or death if not treated seriously.
“In Bridgeport, California, we do cold weather training,” Watts said. “I remember one time when we had a limited supply of water containers that allowed the Marines to boil snow and create clean drinking water. I started thinking and realized that ration tray heating systems in the kitchen might be a suitable substitute. I sent the heaters over there and taught the Marines how to use them. I ended up getting scolded for using our systems in a way they weren’t designed to do, but in the end, the Marines were hydrated and we delivered on mission intent.
His hard work and dedication to troop welfare and mission accomplishment created endless opportunities for Watts. He traveled from Greece to the Philippines, Romania and various other countries. The Marine Corps tested its abilities and Watts was never one to back down.
“The biggest highlight of my career was competing for the Marine Corps Culinary Team,” Watts recalled. “I was asked to go to school to teach and the leaders asked me if I could build sculptures. I told them, “Well, I’ve made gingerbread houses before” and they asked me to make the leaning tower of Pisa in chocolate. My colleagues were impressed with my progress and said they wanted to nominate me for Pastry Chef of the Year 2019, which was in two weeks!
“If you invest in yourself and challenge yourself, you’ll give back to the community, whether it’s the Marine Corps or your peers; seek to improve yourself and that will give back to others.” Artillery Sergeant. Michael D. Watts
With very little notice, Watts had to prepare to participate in the 44th Annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise at Fort Lee, Virginia. He and eight other Marines represented the Marine Corps team competing against 200 other military chefs in the largest American Culinary Federation-sanctioned competition in North America. After six days of cooking, judging and critiquing, the Marine Corps team won the event’s illustrious Team of the Year award for the first time in history and Watts finished strong with two silver medals.
After JCTE, Watts continued to teach Marines at the Marine Specialty Food Service Detachment. He was proud to shape the minds of junior Marines, eager to learn and grow, just like he was many years ago. He took responsibility seriously and continued to go above and beyond the call of duty.
“I was always asking my Marines a question…” Watts continued. “The practice does what? Is anyone perfect? The practice is making progress. When you get better at something, opportunities will arise and more experience will come. That’s how you become an expert, through experience.
His selflessness showed as he not only taught the Restoration Specialist curriculum, but also how the Marine Corps pushed the resilience of its Marines beyond what was expected. If a Marine’s character is underprepared, they will struggle unnecessarily in the heat of a forward operating unit. Watt’s stories of his own personal growth and first-hand struggles with studies had inspired his students to embrace their courses, causing them to excel to their full potential before they even arrived at their first duty station. These methods were recognized by his peers and led him to a new opportunity in his career in the Marine Corps, becoming an enlisted assistant. Marines assigned to the Marine Corps Enlisted Assistance Program are volunteers selected at the discretion of the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
“The food service community is looking at personnel who can fill prestigious positions such as chef for the Secretary of the Navy and the enlisted aide program,” Watts said. “If you are seen doing amazing things, they will personally recommend you. There is a process where you can apply for these positions, but one day the community came to me and asked me.
Due to the high levels of visibility associated with this program, only Marines who demonstrate exceptional levels of professionalism and maturity are considered for assignment. Selected Marines work alongside US military generals appointed by the Liberty of Congress. Watts was selected for the program and is now the enlisted aide for Lt. Gen. Brian W. Cavanaugh, the commander of FMFLANT, MARFORCOM, MARFOR NORTHCOM. It was a dramatic career change from recognized leader to confidant of the general.
“I manage the historic house that the commander lives in and respond to any requests or needs of the commander,” Watts said. “I’m a resource to make sure he’s taken care of so he can keep fighting. He is responsible for our unit and the underlying units. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I’m proud to work for someone who takes care of the Marines below him.
Watts reached 17 years in the Marine Corps. Over the years he has achieved abundant personal growth and set a new goal of one day running his own pastry shop. Although he isn’t sure if he wants to continue his military career, he remains grateful that he enlisted in 2005.
Watts notes, “If you invest in yourself and challenge yourself, you’ll give back to the community, whether it’s the Marine Corps or your peers; seek to improve yourself and that will give back to others.