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Food & Dining

Largo veteran combines food truck, irregular warfare

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:53 PM

There is probably only one food truck in the world where the owner will take a break from slicing Baltimore pit beef to edit and post articles on irregular warfare for a website featuring contributions by the likes of Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The food truck is called the Old City Grill. It's a 32.5-foot-long custom-built rig complete with a refrigerator and freezer, deep fryer, steam table and oven, four large grills, griddle, and a high-end slicer to get the meat just so.

The website is called The Small Wars Journal, an offshoot of a Marine Corps compendium of online information about what was once termed urban warfare. It contains articles about "counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, support and stability operations, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and many flavors of intervention."

Both the food truck and website are operated by Dave Dilegge, a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer who sold his 4,000-square-foot home in Virginia and came to Largo in January looking for a new life at the Bay Ranch mobile home park on Ulmerton Road.

"It was like going from living on an aircraft carrier to living on a submarine," says Dilegge, about the sea change of his life.

For Dilegge, combining the Small Wars Journal and Old City Grill was a matter of melding two of his life's passions – food and irregular warfare.

This is Dilegge's second journey to Tampa Bay. In the 1980s, he worked at U.S. Central Command in the Afghanistan Fusion Cell back when the command "was a backwater."

In the mid-90s, as the Marine Corps began looking at the way war was fought in urban environments, Dilegge volunteered to help lead its efforts on the intelligence side. There was so much interest in what he was finding out that Dilegge created a homepage for something called Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain.

That led him to create the Urban Operations Journal, which morphed in 2005 into the Small Wars Journal, a nod to the Marine Corps' Small Wars Manual for fighting local insurgencies.

Dilegge, who starts his days at 3 a.m. compiling the journal's roundup of items from publications around the world, says that over the years, he and publisher Bill Nagle, have "put in thousands of dollars and thousands of hours" to the journal. He says they rarely make much, if any, money.

"It is a labor of love," he says.

Dilegge may not be making money, but The Small Wars Journal has helped change the way future military leaders are taught.

"The Small Wars Journal has been an invaluable resource as the U.S. military struggled to understand and prevail in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," says John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and an expert on counterinsurgency who helped Generals David Petraeus and John Mattis write the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Small Wars Journal, Nagl says, "helped the U.S. military adapt more rapidly and learn more effectively than in previous conflicts; I believe that it saved both American and host nation lives in the process."

After checking out the SWJ at the recommendation of another officer, Nagl "quickly became hooked, becoming first a daily user and then a contributor to the discussions that I found there. Dave and Bill have done the nation a great service."

Reading the website helped introduce Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, commander of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, to the power of social media.

The journal "is that proverbial 'directed telescope' — a way to for senior leaders to gain exposure to those views and opinions that might not make their way all the way up the chain of command," Caldwell wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Dilegge "is the heart and soul of Small Wars Journal," said Nagle, the Small Wars Journal editor. "Dave is a workhorse and cranks out SWJ at crazy hours around the demands of the Old City Grill. Both are very demanding."

The idea for the food truck, said Dilegge, who retired from the Marine Reserve in 1998, came about as his contracting work for the Joint Forces Command dried up when the Virginia-based command was eliminated in budget-cutting moves last year.

"I always wanted to own my own restaurant," said Dilegge, who said he worked in the food service industry as a busboy, waiter and cook during high school and college.

He almost bought a restaurant in Northern Virginia but decided to live a more mobile and debt-free life.

So he sold his big house and paid cash for his mobile home and about $60,000 for the food truck, made from scratch by a Miami firm.

Life is in flux for Dilegge.

The food truck, with its Baltimore favorites like pit beef and crab cakes, has proved challenging.

While giving kudos to state officials for expediting the paperwork he needed to set up – even coming in on weekends in some cases – finding the right location has not always been easy.

"We were doing food truck rallies, markets and other special events," Dilegge said. "We've done that and late night in front of bars."

Pinellas County rules, he says, have complicated things.

"You can't open until 10 p.m.," he says, which necessitates staying open until 3 a.m. "That's grinding," he says.

So for the past two months, the truck has been in mothballs, parked on a grass field at the back of the mobile home park until Dilegge can figure out his next move.

"I either want to sell it and open a brick-and-mortar restaurant," he says, "or find a spot in Hillsborough County, which is far more accommodating to food trucks."

As for Small Wars Journal, Dilegge said even with the end of the war in Iraq and the looming end of the war in Afghanistan, there will always be a place for it.

"I am 57 years old and I have been hearing there will be no more Vietnams, no more Somalias, no more Iraqs and I sure hear there will be no more Afghanistans," Dilegge said. "But sure enough, we seem to find ourselves in these messy situations. These small wars. We will stick around as long as there is a military."


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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