Western Kansas knows its beef.
And now, thanks to an impressive local effort, U.S. troops and their families from throughout the nation have had a taste of the high quality meat — along with a healthy serving of hospitality from an army of generous western Kansans.
The All American Beef Battalion, a program that sponsors steak feeds for military units, was the brainchild of Bill Broadie of Ashland, a lifelong cattleman who also fought as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War.
Broadie said it made sense to use a regional strength in a show of support for American troops and their families.
"One thing we do very well in western Kansas is raise good beef, so we put the two, with the military, together," he said.
Since the first steak feed in April 2008 in Olathe, the All American Beef Battalion has visited close to a third of U.S. states. They reach out to troops before deployment or upon their return from duty, as well as groups of wounded warriors.
The All American Beef Battalion is scheduled to be in Fort Bliss, Texas, on Feb. 12 to turn out its biggest meal to date — some 5,000 troops in one sitting. So far, the biggest feed totaled about 1,500.
Broadie's rough count of people already served tops out at 65,000, with many more steak dinners to come.
Credit a dedicated crew of generous western Kansans for powering the mission with contributions ranging from donations of beef to time to slice the meat, cook and serve the meals.
"I've got some key players in Garden City," Broadie said, citing extraordinary assistance from Beef Empire Days volunteers. "Those people have just been devout in taking care of the troops."
Larry Bilberry, a local resident who has signed on with the All American Beef Battalion, relishes the heartwarming feedback at the steak feeds.
"It really is a great reaction," Bilberry, who farms south of Garden City, said. "Most of them have never had a good steak before."
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Monti Park, an Ashland native now serving at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, has been treated to steak dinners and also served fellow troops during the events.
He knows how far such a gesture can go with his comrades in arms.
"For a lot of the Army personnel, considering their accommodations and how they're set up in the field ... coming back to a steak dinner with all the trimmings is just phenomenal," Park said. "It's just an exceptional deal for anybody in the military."
Bilberry, who didn't serve in the military but has relatives who did, welcomed the opportunity to do what he could to support American troops.
"They're getting a good steak, they're getting fellowship and we're getting a way to say thanks for what they do," he said.
While there's always plenty of work at home, Bilberry and his family still head out of town to help honor troops and their families. "We make time for it," he said.
Unfortunately, too few Americans give the nation's current war effort such thought.
As a war veteran, Broadie also remembers all too well the poor reception for U.S. troops returning from Vietnam. That slight has helped motivate him to do what he can with the All American Beef Battalion.
So it's no wonder he has an even grander plan: Take Kansas beef to the war zone.
"My goal is I want to go where the USO (United Service Organizations) didn't go," Broadie said. "These kids in Afghanistan especially, and before in Iraq, are really in some tough areas."
It's a lofty plan, as the U.S. military understandably is wary about allowing civilians anywhere near the fighting.
Still, considering the determination already shown in reaching troops with a well deserved salute, don't count out the All American Beef Battalion.
E-mail Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at firstname.lastname@example.org.