This story was created as part of Project Tell Me, a series running across Women’s Health and Men’s Health to celebrate the contributions of U.S. military veterans and spotlight some of their voices. Read the rest of the profiles in this package here.
THE TRANSITION FROM military service to the civilian workforce can be daunting. For battle-tested veterans, it can feel more foreign than an overseas deployment.
“They come into a workforce straight out of the military, and they’re hearing people complain about the smallest details of life,” says Kyle Gourlie, a Marine veteran who faced IEDs and sniper fire while manning a Humvee machine gun in Iraq. “And it’s just like, ‘Do you have any idea what my life was like before this (and) to hear you complain about such small things?’ … It ruins a job for them.”
But Gourlie thinks he might have found something to ease the transition: burritos.
“Everything’s better in a tortilla,” he says.
Gourlie, known around Seattle as The Vet Chef, launched his own successful Mexican fusion food truck several years ago. He believes food trucks might offer veterans not only a paycheck, but a purpose and passion that mirrors their military experience.
“My goal is to open up a bunch of food trucks and have veterans like myself find their creativeness, their art, their passion in what they do,” he says. “I genuinely think food is that missing link for a lot of veterans.”
Gourlie says he encountered his own love for cooking when he left active duty and began preparing meals alongside his father-in-law. Gourlie was spellbound, pulled into a world of kinetic energy and creativity he never thought possible through food.
“He really started showing me just how much fun and excitement and passion that it takes to cook a good meal,” says Gourlie. With his GI Bill “just kind of hanging over his head,” he signed up for culinary school.
After the birth of their first child, Gourlie and his wife, Amanda, decided against opening a restaurant, knowing it offered little time for family. His sister was the one who suggested opening a food truck. But if Gourlie was hoping for a more resigned lifestyle, his food truck had other ideas.
“As soon as we open the window, it’s just all hell breaks loose,” says Gourlie. “We serve about a burrito every 36 seconds.”
That intensity, Gourlie says, is what appeals to veterans, offering them purpose and camaraderie.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities to the kitchen life and the military,” says Gourlie. “It’s a stressful job, it’s intense. You’re really pushing the team to its limits, and everybody has their job.”
Gourlie has employed a veteran nearly every day of The Vet Chef food truck’s seven-year existence. Repeatedly, he’s witnessed disheartened veterans, bouncing from job to job, land on his truck, only to come alive preparing carne asada nacho fries or slinging California burritos.
“I genuinely think that getting some of your frustrations out on a place where you’re around like-minded people, who have either been in that position and figured out a way to conquer that can bring healing,” says Gourlie.
Not content to just employ veterans, Gourlie has launched a mentoring service that coaches veterans looking to start a food truck, with clients across the nation. Ultimately, though, he hopes to build his business into a line of trucks that he can hand off to veteran entrepreneurs.
“I think that that is why I started this,” he says. “Me and my wife were hoping that we could stick some food trucks in the hands of veterans and, you know, kind of give them their life back.”
Will Martin is an award-winning writer and Iraq War Army veteran whose writing passions include health and wellness, military, and social justice issues.