Old Bridge native and current Navy Seabee Michael Wisnewski (r) is presented with a certificate for his Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.Old Bridge native and current Navy Seabee Michael Wisnewski (r) is presented with a certificate for his Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. decorated after Iraq



OLD BRIDGE — For years, Michael Wisnewski was a mainstay in the local food service industry.

By day, the Old Bridge native stood in the back kitchen of a local T.G.I. Friday’s, whipping up chargrilled burgers and Jack Daniel’s ribs. By night, Wisnewski was the establishment’s premier bartender, serving margaritas and other drinks to hundreds of thirsty customers.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, Wisnewski decided the only thing he wanted to serve was his country.

"I was bartending and running the kitchen at Friday’s for a long time," said Wisnewski, 27, who is now a BU3 (petty officer third class) in the U.S. Navy Seabees. "I always thought I wanted to join the Navy. After Sept. 11, it seemed like a good time."

Wisnewski, who is currently stationed in Gulfport, Miss., served in Operation Iraqi Freedom for six and a half months last year, remaining in Iraq until August. Upon his return, the bartender-turned-sailor received a promotion and was presented with two prestigious military honors: the Blue Jacket Sailor of the Quarter and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

The Blue Jacket Sailor of the Quarter, which is presented to only two service members in the entire United States per quarter year, is awarded for outstanding character, professionalism, personal initiative and loyal devotion to duty. Wisnewski was the only member of his battalion to receive the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, which has been in existence since World War II. He received it for exhibiting meritorious service and achievement in either a combat or noncombat capacity.

"And because I’m a hell of a guy," quipped Wisnewski, a graduate of Old Bridge High School.

Congruent with their motto, "We build. We fight," the Navy Seabees are responsible for a myriad of military construction projects. In Iraq, Wisnewski and his 700-member battalion worked 12-hour days, repairing and constructing military bases and building camp bridges to shield U.S. soldiers from possible chemical attacks.

"It was very hot," he recalled. "But we did the best with what had. … It was good money. All tax-free money. We got combat pay and overseas pay."

In Gulfport, Miss., the location that Wisnewski described as having "the most gorgeous sky you’ve ever seen," the Seabees perform contin­gency con­struction, build baseball fields and await further deploy­ment.

Although Wisnewski said his re­cent awards and accomplishments are all in a day’s work, his father, Bill, a telephone technician who resides in Old Bridge, said he is quite proud of, and pleasantly sur­prised by, his son’s successes.

"I am absolutely impressed," he said. "Mike was not too driven. He dropped out of college, and he did­n’t seem to care whether he had a career or not. He just loved cook­ing.

"I’m a fairly handy person, and I was always afraid to give him a hammer," his father said.

Although he plans to serve with the Seabees for several years and perhaps travel abroad to countries like Greece and Italy, Wisnewski said he eventu­ally wants to return to the restaurant industry.

"When I get out of the military, I want to open a steakhouse by the wa­ter," he said.