A US Army soldier from eats a pre-packaged MRE as he rests on his battle gear. Bagram base, Afghanistan, 2002. (Photo: REUTERS/Jim Hollander)

All US combat troops are to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

And the Pentagon is already making tough decisions about how to manage the drawdown.

That includes reducing the number of cooked meals available to the troops.

Until recently, because of the round-the-clock nature of war, the US military has been offering most troops in Afghanistan four cooked meals a day.

Now that’s in the process of being reduced to just two hot meals a day.

In an email to The World, a Pentagon spokesman said “The change is part of our transition to a more expeditionary posture, and is necessary to ensure US forces and DoD agencies make the best use of the resources available in the time remaining and while meeting retrograde requirements. By adding operational rations to the meal cycle, we will significantly reduce contractor and supply chain requirements.”

In other words, it will save money and reduce the American footprint in Afghanistan by cutting the number of contractors.

The troops won’t go hungry; they’ll still have MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and packaged food available.

But it’s still 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.

An MRE doesn’t measure up to a hot meal after a long mission, says Brown.

He goes on, “being able to sit down across from your comrades over a meal, where everyone to a certain extent has let their hair down, it’s a stress-reliever, and it’s also a way of building solidarity with your brother-in-arms.”

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Brown described how a single army cook was able to transform morale on his base in Afghanistan by creating meals at midnight that people really wanted.

We put the following question out to The World’s on-line community of vets:

‘No more cooked meals at midnight, and maybe no breakfast, for troops in Afghanistan. MREs now. How important were these meals to you or your vet?’

Here are some of the responses:

“Suck it up.”

“They were vital, if you are required to go on night missions. Hopefully you had a warm meal when you came back.”

“Breakfast was a great moral boost before missions. Midnight chow is as important as any other because troops are engaged in 24 hour operations and working well over 12 hours a day in many cases.”

“Combat troops rarely got hot meals. We’d come in and eat an MRE with the dust from the road after cleaning our weapons and before showering. It is war. So what?”

“Congress should be answering this question. Bottom line: raise taxes or cut spending”

“Very! It will impact some more than others, but morale will suffer. We often work late shifts in country, and like to have a hot meal before settling in for a few hours of sleep.”

“Very important. There was an unwritten rule when I served in the Army- you didn’t mess with G.I.’s chow, or his mail. Having a hot meal can was a real morale builder.”

“I was in the field, so we didn’t have cooked meals unless we cooked our own meals. I’m not about to feel bad for the folks that are losing mid-rats.”

“There are 3 F’s that shouldn’t be messed with when it comes to troops: Food, Family, and Funds. There are several other cost-cutting measures that can and should be pursued.”

“Food was a vestige of happiness for many of us in the war. At no time did I ever consider a MRE food. MREs were merely tools of survival like our rifles or flack vests.”

“As a USMC infantry vet it is incredibly important to my psyche, however in the marine culture of thriving under the worse conditions possible it’s not the worse thing to happen.”

“When I first went over in Feb of 2003, that’s all we had and we didn’t get cooked food until several months later. The transition to real food helped with moral, but it wasn’t the only thing that did. War is extremely expensive, and so is having contractors provide cooked meals. As we have to start cutting costs, amenities are going to be the first to go, and hopefully people will understand.”

“They kept morale high for my troops but this is what we train for.”

“It was a comfort almost a stress reliever to get away from the grind of combat, a very social gathering in the chow hall.”

“Hot meals meant the world.”

“MREs are a bit demoralizing. There is a lack of personal connection in the idea of prepared food in a rubber bag. Perhaps it is the difference between food and a meal. Meals are communal events where soldiers share a few minutes of normalcy.”

“On a scale of 1 to 10: 4.”

“They were usually the highlight of our day and the thing to look forward to. They did something similar to us in Iraq when they started shutting things down.”

“Living on FOBs most of the time I ate MREs most of the time. Hot food was very important when we could get it. If its a budget issue, why does the IRS get 70mil in bonuses, and why is congress getting such large salaries while soldiers suffer?”

“Are you serious? Breakfast, was the most important meal both nutrition and socially. Missions were planned during breakfast and duties assigned as well.”

“Hot meals were the only thing we looked forward to after a long mission. I remember being on mission for 4 days and the only thing that made it worth while was getting back to FOB and have a hot meal, not that it was amazing food, it just wasn’t a MRE. Hot food kept moral up, it reminded me of home a little bit.”

“Not that important, made soldiers fat.”

“In Special Forces most of our missions were in the middle of the night; that midnight breakfast could very well be your last meal.”

“An army needs to be fed…cutting hot meals is a massive blunder.”

“VERY important!! Mealtime was a break from the reality of where you were. It was social time, venting time, gossip time (yup guys gossip:). MREs are sustenance but not food in the way that something cooked for you is. You can still socialize around an MRE but you miss the act of going to the chow hall, seeing people outside your unit you may know, connecting with a former buddy.”

“It reminded me that we were cared for. It’s a small thing and most would not think of it as important but, a hot meal does so much to keep your mind in the game.”

“I certainly prefer cooked meals and would be pissed when they’re gone. However most of us can adapt and overcome.”

Read the Transcript
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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, “Incredibly important to my psyche.” 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.

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