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Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, filling in for Marco Werman. This is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban got bogged down this week even before they started. But with or without those talks, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is continuing on schedule. All U.S. combat troops are to be out of the country by the end of 2014, and the Pentagon is already making tough decisions about how to manage the draw down. That includes reducing the number of cooked meals available to the troops.
Until recently, because of the round the clock nature of war, the U.S. military has been offering most troops in Afghanistan four hot cooked meals a day. Now that's in the process of being reduced to just two hot meals a day. That's a bad idea according to David Brown, an army veteran of Afghanistan, and now an author and journalist who writes under the name D. B. Grady. What's the problem here David?
David Brown: Well, to a certain extent it's self-evident. You've got people who are running missions at night, and when they come back from these missions, highly stressful activities, they have no food to eat or they're handed an MRE and said, go about your business.
Hills: Those MRE's, meals ready to eat, what's wrong with them?
Brown: I wouldn't call it food.
Hills: They don't quite achieve what a hot meal does?
Brown: That's correct. Sitting down and breaking bread with your comrades has a psychological value that you just can't get from a plastic, hermetically sealed meal.
Hills: In the Atlantic this month, you write about the difference a good midnight meal made to you and your whole unit when you were serving. Tell us about that.
Brown: Well, when you consider the general inhospitable climate that a warzone can be, certainly Afghanistan's not the most pleasant place in the world. Being able to sit down across from your comrades over a meal where everyone, to a certain extent, gets to let their hair down, it's a stress reliever and it's also a way of building solidarity with your brothers at arms.
Hills: In your article you write about how this one enlisted guy, who became your cook, or the cook for your unit, he made this huge difference in the moral of your whole team there. Tell us about him.
Brown: Well when he arrived in country he was an army cook and his job was to do what army cooks typically do, which is to heat up meals from wherever it is the army acquires their mysterious cuisine. You could tell that this pained him. This was his job, this was something that he was going to do and be proud of. This was his time in a combat zone. And finally he took the initiative and he decided he was going to, I would say, put all of his heart and soul into these meals to begin creating meals that mattered, things that people would actually want to eat, would want to sit around tables and talk with one another and break bread. And it made a real difference in the moral of the unit and indeed the whole camp.
Hills: You know, our program, The World, we have a community of vets online, and we asked them for some responses to this story about possibly losing these two hot meals a day, and one common response we got was, suck it up. Some said they'd never had hot cooked meals. What do you say to that?
Brown: Well I would be very curious to see what soldier and what unit had never had a hot meal in a combat zone. But I would say that based on what we've learned over the years with regard to mental health and with regard to combat efficiency and combat readiness, if a cooked meal is a stress reliever for a soldier who's coming off a patrol, or pilots who've been in the air for 12 hours, why would we not provide that? Especially considering the relative cost efficiency of it. If we're looking at, just suck it up, things are a lot easier now and you're too soft a soldier, well, how hardcore do we want to get?
Every war things get a little bit easier. World War I didn't even have antibiotics. So do we want to go back to those days? Because they were really hardcore soldiers in those days, obviously. World War II veterans would have loved the type of uniforms that we have today, the types of moisture wicking shirts, flame resistant materials, and so on. Do we want to go back to those days? I mean, how much is adequate suffering for a soldier and who's going to be the one to make that decision?
Hills: To be fair I should tell you that many of our online community actually agree with you. One marine infantry vet wrote that those midnight meals were, Ã¢â?¬Å?Incredibly important to my psyche.Ã¢â?¬ To help listeners understand the difference, tell us about the alternative. What's in an MRE?
Brown: Well, an MRE is a very calorie dense meal. It has strange foods with names like pork imitation pre-formed. And the Department of Defense is right, I mean, a soldier who eats an MRE will receive adequate nutrition and calories moving forward. The problem with an MRE is not necessarily what's in it, it's what's not in it. And what's not in it is that single place where soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, come together, discuss their day, basically de-stress, so to speak. MRE's just aren't conducive to that.
Hills: Sort of like the family meal around the table at the end of the day.
Brown: That's exactly right, and family is probably the perfect way to put it.
Hills: Army veteran David Brown is now an author and journalist writing under the name D.B. Grady. He joined us today from WRKF in Baton Rouge. David, thanks for talking to us.
Brown: Thank you.