How an American Soldier Eats in Iraq
*It’s tricky for a soldier to lug around a DSLR camera while deployed, hence these decidedly non-food geek point-and-shoot shots.
I’m going to call this a “guest post” of sorts. Brad, a close friend of mine from childhood, is in the Army. I don’t see nearly enough of him nowadays, because he’s been busy bomb-dodging in Iraq. I appreciate that there are people like him in this world willing to do what they do so that I can enjoy a relatively-bucolic life. I have been meaning to share his story for some time, but it did not fit within the context of this blog- until now. It occurred to me to ask Brad about life in Iraq as it pertains to food. The answers reveal so much more.
When I received his responses to my questions, I experienced a series of emotions. Initially I felt frivolous for asking, coupled with a grave sense of guilt over the existence of this “war.” Ultimately, however, I realized that completing this exercise provided him with a welcome respite from his unsavory surroundings, and so it was for the best.
It’s a meaty read, as I chose to preserve his answers in their entirety rather than truncate, but I think you’ll find it worth your attention.
Brad: First off I have to give you some context of my situation. Nine hours ago our patrol was hit yet again by a large IED (roadside bomb). I thought my only friend within the platoon just got blown off the planet but much to my relief he had just stopped his vehicle because he noticed something wasn’t quite right. The bomb in the road went off in front of him and engulfed him in thick black smoke but left him otherwise unharmed.
Yesterday while walking to the platoon office with this same friend, we heard a loud zip above our heads followed by a large explosion 75 meters to our left. Long story short, we had a 200 meter dash for safety. It was a rocket that detonated into a concrete wall. Just prior to these two incidents, I had another encounter moments after reporting for duty after a two week trip back home. It happened an hour after I got off the chopper. Two RPG’s (rocket-propelled grenades) fired at our observation post and at one of our towers. Not that those places serve any particular interest, it’s just where the enemy has a fetish for attacking.
That being said, I’m now on to the questions which I sincerely look forward to answering.
L: How long have you been enlisted?
B: I have been in the Army for just over three years now.
L: What is your rank?
B: My rank is Specialist. My job title is Husky driver or Platoon leader’s gunner.
L: What are the timeline details of your enlistment?
B: I’m currently serving on my second combat deployment. I will be returning from this deployment no later than September 9, 2011. I’m located in the city of Baghdad. It’s an urban slum shit hole and is the last place anyone would want to be put in Iraq.
L: Do you have access to local cuisine?
B: I’m not usually able to eat much local cuisine. My first deployment we had more access to the public. The lack of missions and the lack of security aren’t conducive to strolling the neighborhood markets and eateries. Having said that, I was fortunate enough to find some local cuisine at FOB Hammer. A FOB is a Forward Operating Base or just simply a base. The army and its fucking acronyms are enough to inspire one to kill.
At Hammer, I’d noticed a broken down building that the interpreter told me had bad food. I’ll admit I’ve been waiting for illness for a day now and I’m quite happy to note that my innards seem to agree with the local selections. I didn’t get much information from the person running the restaurant because of the language barrier, but the man was most likely the owner. The restaurant was a combination sporting goods apparel/restaurant. I ate falafel with fattoush and some other fruit salad/lemony banana ferment. Not sure if it was old or was meant to be fermented.
L: What foods are native to the area?
B: Foods that are common to the region that I’ve eaten include lamb, chicken, pigeon, flat bread, fattoush, and falafel. Kabobs are a common way of serving meat dishes which I find bland in the States but here they are prepared with many spices and taste surprisingly good. Fattoush is a varying dish but always contains beans that are very large in size with tomatoes and cucumbers with a vinegar sauce that has the distinct taste of chili powder. There is a hint of coriander as well. Fattoush has a harsh smell, and I’m always wondering how my bowels are going to respond, but so far so good.
There is a mix of leafy greens with pickled peppers and onions that usually comes with flat bread and chicken, pigeon, or lamb. Driving through any local market there are always a few shepherds/butchers with live and freshly slaughtered lambs. Sanitation does not seem to be a consideration so it’s usually a scene of flies, blood, and dogs chewing at the guts as locals try and chase them away. There is also a stall of endless produce and live fish. Having seen the waters in Iraq, I wouldn’t dare try any local fish.
L: What foods do you crave from home?
B: This varies from day to day. My last deployment I came home in search of the ideal club sandwich as well as the ideal reuben. It stems from seeking meals from my country club youth. Miracle Whip, bacon, toast and perfectly cooked fries are what I remember eating every Saturday after searching for golf balls in the freezing water of Alfius Creek.
So far this deployment, three soft barbacoa tacos from Chipotle has been my most frequent desire. That was my last meal before deployment, when I had just discovered the quality food they had to offer. Chipotle is a chain, so initially I spurned it. I now know that I was wrong, because those barbacoa tacos are tasty nubbins.
The foods I miss tend to be simple. To borrow an idea from Anthony Bourdain, usually when someone chooses their last meal, it winds up being a good burger, a corn dog from the local fair, or something simple and visceral. A chili dog always sounds great, or even a fast food burger. On my recent vacation in California, of course I had to hit up In N Out Burger.
L: Tell us a little about the infamous MRE- Meal Ready to Eat.
B: I haven’t had an MRE yet this deployment. I lived on MRE’s during training almost exclusively for a month. You can live on them but you shit rocks from having done so.
Hands down, my favorite MRE is chicken fajita. You take everything in it and wrap it up in the two tortillas. There are two reasons it’s my favorite; first, the cheese (cheese whiz type spread), and second, the ease of consumption. There is no silverware required and it’s quick and easy. Take your rice, chicken fajita mix, cheese crackers, cheese whiz, and Tabasco, mix it all up after heating and wrap it up in a tortilla for quick and easy caloric satisfaction.
Usually the quicker you shove down an MRE, the more time you’ll have to sneak in a nap. During training, you’re short on sleep and burning thousands of calories running around with 70 to 100 pounds on your back. Some army folks that aren’t in combat MOS’s (Military Occupational School) wouldn’t understand, but the troops doing the heavy lifting have a different army experience than staffers. I’m not making any judgments, just noting that there are two armies- combat and everybody else.
Everyone in the army is, in their own right, an MRE chef. Not many simply eat the meal as directed on the boxes and bags. We always mix and add things. I always save the Tabasco if it goes unused. I collect the instant coffee and drink mixes because caffeine and extra carbs come in handy. I usually eat the coffee and quickly wash it down with water. It’s like taking a pill more than drinking coffee.
As far as deployment goes, we are told at some point the chow hall will be closing down so get ready to live on MRE’s. I’ve got my chili salt, my Sriracha, tons of beef jerky, Jelly Bellies, yogurt-covered raisins, Girl Scout Cookies, and other favorites from friends and relatives. Those things become very handy once the MRE diet is instituted.
MRE’s are one of those things that a combat veteran uses to separate earlier deployments from the deployments of the past five years or so. I’m sure Afghanistan is different depending where exactly you are, and Iraq as well, for that matter. There are people deployed in Iraq now that eat MRE’s for two meals a day. They keep you alive and full of calories, but after about a week they get very, very old.
L: Discuss food on missions versus food on base.
B: Food on mission doesn’t change much, but from FOB to FOB the quality of food preparation varies. It is too dangerous in my current situation in Iraq to get food at any local restaurant or market. There are basically no patrols outside of the ‘wire’ other than route clearance being followed by supply convoys.
The chow hall is catered by KBR and is cafeteria-style. Some days are better than others. You always have your choice of the grill which is burgers and hotdogs and has a nightly special that varies from Philly cheese steak to grilled tuna. The main line is a choice of specials on a weekly rotation. Once a week is lobster tail and steak night. Once a month there are King Crab legs.
L: Would it be possible to prepare your own food?
B: No. I could buy a grill I suppose, but there is no charcoal. A gas grill, I’m sure, would get me in trouble. There isn’t much of a supply of anything to cook anyway. The only thing I prepare is noodles that my brother sends me from the Asian market. I usually throw in some chili paste and dried anchovies.
L: When you return from Iraq, are there foods you won’t eat again because of the negative association?
B: I’ll never eat a Pop-Tart again. During our first deployment we had an endless supply of Pop-Tarts, muffins, Rip Its, et cetera. For some reason the Pop- Tart has become completely disgusting to me. I’m sure there is some associative psychology going on there. The Pop- Tart is at the top of the list of food repulsion for every one of us who deployed together two years ago. Ask any soldier who’s been deployed if he/she will ever eat a Pop- Tart again. I’d bet that fifty percent will know what I’m talking about.
L: Are there significant differences between your first and second deployments?
B: During my first combat mission in Iraq, we stopped at a local eatery because the Iraqis that were on mission with us wanted to get some food. It was whole roasted chicken with pickled peppers, onions, greens and flat bread. The food was delicious and the fact that we were starving and on a ten hour mission made it seem even better. I thought back then that I had it made in Iraq. That was before I experienced several hundred explosions, so yes, life is very different this time around.
L: Is it true that there is little-to-no access to alcohol in Iraq?
B: There is no access to alcohol. Unless it’s mailed there is none and people who get it in the mail keep it quiet. Of course when we return to the US, we often hear stories of smuggled contraband, but no one talks until we’re home, when all the hush hush stories come out.
L: Can you take pictures of what the dining hall is like?
B: It is strictly forbidden because the enemy would love to have as much information about our dining facilities as possible. In December of 2006, a suicide bomber got access to one of our chow halls and, well you can imagine. I had a drill sergeant that told us his firsthand account of the story, so I fully understand the no pictures thing. That combined with idiot soldiers posting everything on the internet is a big intelligence leak.
L: Was the food significantly different during basic training?
B: Basic training is quite a food experience. You’re only allowed two minutes to finish your meal. You’re always starving so you eat as much food as you can as fast as you can. Regardless of the size of the meal you eat your going to be hungry again in an hour. The intelligent soldier chooses foods that can be consumed together and in a quick and timely manner.
I will forever remember the meal I had to throw away because I didn’t have my feet together and on the ground. You have to eat at the sitting position of attention otherwise you get fucked. The disappointment of having to throw away breakfast, the best meal of the day, broke my heart. While I was in the dish pit getting ready to throw out my meal I quickly shoved two pieces of French toast down my throat. We were animals. I wouldn’t say my tastes have evolved since then, but I do have to remind myself once in a while that I’m no longer in a race to finish my food.
L: Has the army changed your appetite and your general attitude toward eating?
B: Appetite is an interesting thought. Sometimes my appetite is insatiable and sometimes i can skip two meals. I take two or three supplements a day and always add salt to my food. When you sweat 24/7 you must have salt. I hit a two week lull two months back and after adding salt to every meal, I was cured- no pun intended.
It’s gotten to the point that I honestly don’t care a lot about the enjoyment of food. It’s not such a bad thing since it allows me to eat based on nutrition. I break it down to how much fat and starch I need to get by. If I’m occasionally going to do the four hundred yard dash for life, I don’t want to feel like I’m running low on fuel.