There seems to be some unwritten rule that says if you pamper troops with good food they’ll refuse to fight. This premise does hold some water. I’ve eaten French field rations and they’re great—the French Army, on the other hand…
American soldiers eat vile vittles but are tip top on the military food chain. So maybe the rule is true. Let’s look at Army chow for a moment.
We Have Seen the Enemy
American soldiers from the beginning of our nation have had to suffer at the hands of Army cooks. I know… I happen to be one. I joined the Army in 1989 because I needed a job right out of college. Good thing I did, I weighed in at 122 lbs. (I guess Captain Crunch didn’t have quite the nutritional value a young athlete needed, nor did ramen.) The mess hall was my savior! As a native New Mexican I grew up eating spicy food but apparently I needed over-cooked, bland (at the same time inexplicably over salted), mushy food in the military… because that’s what I got. I did gain weight though, somehow.
Here at home we normally have contractors running the various dining facilities on an Army post. Keep in mind that the old axiom, “your equipment is made by the lowest bidder” applies here as well.
Defense contracts are said to be quite lucrative, maybe because the contractors spend as little as possible on materials—or in our case, ingredients. Or perhaps, food contracts aren’t one of those “oh so lucrative” teats to feed on and the contractors have to find ways to trim the fat. Actually, they seem to being adding fat as well as other by products, just saving on quality and actual meat.
Another well known saying goes, “if you can’t identify it, don’t eat it!” That doesn’t, and in fact, can’t really apply to soldiers. We don’t have much choice in the matter and by the time we get to eat, we’re starving, so you learn to eat whatever’s on your tray. Tabasco helps.
The rations we get when we’re in the field are called MREs or Meals Ready to Eat. The MREs are actually not that bad—in fact they are usually better than what we get at the dining facility. We do not say mess halls anymore. We don’t even call them dining facilities, we say “D-FAC”… I guess our hypocrisy is bounded.
When I couldn’t stand it anymore I got out and stayed out for almost 12 years. Today I find myself, once again, in uniform. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The MREs have gotten better at least.
Choosing Our Weapon
Some things haven’t changed, often we fondly reminisce about some of the great food we’ve eaten in foreign countries. That and the beautiful girls we’ve seen are a couple of the main topics as we settle in for our evening repast. On one hand we’re trying to distract ourselves from the slimy, salty mush in front of us with the girls and on the other, we’re trying desperately to remember what real food looks, smells and tastes like.
Recently I was in Honduras and got to try something new… UGRs. I have no idea what the acronym stands for, none of us did, but we got pretty creative in discussing the options, most of which are unfit for publication. For a month and a half we tried to eat what we were served… we honestly tried. We found that the food itself, which we were told was good, actually seemed to be getting us sick.
We started finding reasons to go out, get away from the compound and find food in Honduras. The Army told us that we shouldn’t eat the food, because it was not approved, suggesting that local food was bad and might get us sick. By the end of the exercise we were willing to gamble. We might or might not get sick eating the local food but we absolutely knew that we would get sick if we ate the food the army was trying to feed us. We spent money from our own pockets in order to get proper nutrition.
I lost twenty pounds in the last four months. I guess it’s not a bad weight loss program but the sacrifice, especially for a “foodie,” was a bit steep. We had to do something, anything… so we went out and bought a hibachi and went grocery shopping. We did what soldiers have done throughout the ages: When confronted with an unresolvable issue, we circumvented the problem.
In the evening, after the too-damn-hot sun went down, we would gather and chat while the meat cooked on the barbeque. Then we would break bread together. Good friends, good food… our morale soared.
Recently reporting from Forward Operating Base, Naco, in Honduras, I’m Matt Hemmer.