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Meals Ready to Eat follow warfighters into the field

Thursday, March 27, 2003

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

We are at war. Our weapons, transportation and intelligence resources are state-of-the-art. Luckily for our troops, so is the food.

A modern-day military-issue Meal-Ready-to-Eat comes with side dish, beverage, dessert and single-use heater. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette, food styling by Marlene Parrish)
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Chief Warrant Officer 4 Pat Olofson, Command food adviser at the headquarters of the 99th Regional Support Command, U.S. Army Reserve in Coraopolis, knows a lot about feeding humongous quantities of food to military personnel. "I've been in military food service for 34 years, and I've fed as many as 4,500 warfighters at a meal," he says. The generic word "troops" has been replaced by warfighters, an all-purpose, militarily correct term for our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and women. It saves a lot of time.

The Meal-Ready-to-Eat, or MRE, is the "brown bag lunch" consumed during training and in combat. Before Olofson set up a sampling and taste-testing of MREs for us, he clarified how our service men and women are fed three times a day.

There are two kinds of meal situations.

"Garrison feeding refers to formal military installations on active duty, where food is prepared for large groups in units of 100 servings," explains Olofson. "In a nonwar scenario, for instance, when the warfighters are practicing field exercises, breakfast is served in a mess hall and they grab an MRE on the way out, stuff it in one of the cargo pockets on their pants or toss it into their vehicle for the midday meal. They return to the base for dinner in the mess hall."

Combat feeding is the field operation, which today might be in Kuwait or Iraq. "MREs are often the only meals troops in the field have available for the first days or even weeks of a deployment," Olofson says. "Troops who have not deployed recently may be under the impression that MREs are all they will get at these forward-deployed locations. But not all field rations in combat zones come in a plastic MRE bag."

Food and mobile kitchen trailers are trucked into safe sites near operations. The trailers latch together on-site to become kitchen, pantry, prep area and dining room. Ranges and ovens are built in and bolted down. Dropped panels become part of the floor and walls, and ceilings are raised. Once the field kitchen is set up, cooks begin serving up to two hot meals per day.

But when troops are headed for the front line, that's when they may take two or three MREs with them. More food and water will be delivered by land or air transport.

Just the facts

The meals are developed by the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

*They are designed to have a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees or six months at 100 degrees. MREs weigh 1.5 pounds, and each warfighter gets three a day.

They come in 24 or more different menu choices. These deployment field rations are intended to provide about 4,000 calories a day. The contents of each brown plastic meal bag provide an average of 1,250 calories, 13 percent protein, 36 percent fat and 51 percent carbohydrates.

"An MRE meal bag contains an entree, side dish, pastry, snack, drink mix and accessories," Olofson says. "The food tends to be familiar, geared to comfort and what might be served at home, not in a restaurant. Because MREs are for people on the move, they are designed to fit into the cargo pockets of field uniforms or military pants."

Taste-testing MREs

One MRE that we taste-tested was Menu #5: Grilled chicken breast fillet, Mexican-style rice, crackers, apple jelly, orange pound cake and cocoa mix. Our accessory package held salt, Tabasco, iced tea drink mix, instant apple drink mix, chewing gum, a pack of matches, a plastic spoon, a moist towelette and a packet of toilet paper.

Opening the bags was the hardest part and required the use of a pocket knife. But the food was both good and plentiful, and it looked, smelled and tasted far better than much of the grub served in many restaurants.

Here are some other typical meals.

Beef with mushrooms, yellow wild rice pilaf, oatmeal cookie and cocoa.

Jamaican pork chop with noodles, spiced cinnamon apples and dairy shake.

Country captain chicken, buttered noodles, toaster pastry, Tootsie Rolls and mocha cappuccino. (That's right, cappuccino.)

Chicken with Thai sauce, white rice, raisin nut mix and cherry drink mix.

Pasta with vegetable and Alfredo sauce, pound cake, salted dry-roasted peanuts and wet-pack fruit.

There are breakfast, vegetarian, halal (certified for Islamic diets) and kosher packages, too.

An MRE pack might also contain familiar off-the-shelf products such as beef jerky, Cheddar and peanut butter crackers, sports bars, crackers, wheat snack bread with peanut butter, coffee and creamer, brownies and Tootsie Rolls, which are considered to be morale boosters.

The beverage mixes, sort of like fortified Kool-Aid, are added to water in a canteen. Items in the pipeline for 2004 MREs are pepperoni sticks, pizza pockets and pocket-style sandwiches. About the only things missing are SPAM and a pack of Luckies. (OK, so I'm old enough to remember.)

Sand is not included, jokes Command Food Advisor Olofson, but in this war, sooner or later, there'll be no way to keep it out of opened food packs.

A unique Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) is included in each MRE pack to heat the food. The short and simple directions, graphics and printed instructions read: "Place MRE pouch in heater, add water to the line, place pouch back into carton and incline the package on a rock or something." (sic)

Here's the science behind it: Inside a thin, green plastic sleeve are flat pouches containing a mixture of three powdered metals: sodium, magnesium and iron. When water is added to the pouch, the sodium reacts instantly with the water to form hydrogen gas and heat, which heats the magnesium up to where it too will react with the water, producing more hydrogen and heat. Finally, the iron gets hot enough to react with the water producing still more hydrogen and heat. The reaction takes place instantly, with steam, heat and bubbles occurring faster than you could light a match. The heat is stable long enough to heat entree, side dishes and beverages.

Because the food is pre-chopped much like a stir-fry, or ground and remolded into, say, a mock pork chop, a plastic spoon is the only utensil required. When the meal is consumed, all wrappers go back into the original bag. Personnel are instructed to make sure everything is "policed up" and pocketed, to be disposed of later and only at a designated dump site.

There are no restrooms in the desert. When it's safe to go, personnel dig out a hole in the sand, do their business, use that packet of toilet tissue from the MRE, then cover the evidence with sand. Just like kitty litter.

Olofson admits that many warfighters stow "poguey-bait" in their backpacks. "A poguey is a slang term for a person in the rear of the action who has access to goodies such as candy bars and snacks," he says. "A little stashed poguey-bait makes a great treat. But smart guys don't flaunt it."

Here's another common term. "A mermite is a type of container. When warfighters are in a remote location, we 'mermite' food supplies by Humvee," Olofson explains. "If it's a long mission, food, ammunition, medical supplies and water are delivered by land or air transport. The decision is a matter of the most efficient manner."

Staying hydrated is of utmost importance in the desert. At least every hour, team leaders check every person to make sure they are drinking enough water to stay hydrated. Water is often replenished from streams and treated with purification tablets before drinking.

Early MREs, other deserts

Improving rations is an ongoing process, according to Master Sgt. Richard Castelveter, the 99th's chief of public affairs. "Previously, I was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division from Ft. Bragg, N.C.," he says. "I was involved in the invasion of Granada and in one of the first peace-keeping forces in the Sinai Peninsula as part of the 1979 peace accords set up by President Carter. Back then, we were eating the original MREs, which were often referred to as Meals-Rejected-by-Everybody.

"Troops were and still are resourceful. In the field, everybody's his own personal chef," says Castelveter. "Back then, almost everyone packed his personal Tabasco to make the food palatable. The nutritionists took the hint, and now a mini bottle is in every MRE.

"If you don't like everything in the meal pack, you barter for something you do. We had no meal heaters then, either, so we learned from the nomads and bedouins -- we made fires from camel chips. In the desert heat, the animal droppings (piles of pellets, each the size of half a charcoal briquette) quickly become hard, dry and flammable, making an ever-present and efficient fuel devoid of odor. We'd burn a pile of camel chips to heat up meals, coffee or cocoa in our metal cups. Soldiers soon learn that any time there's a break in the action, you take advantage of it. You learn to eat when you can, sleep when you can."

Every country with service personnel has some version of field meals. They are all packaged in sturdy plastic packets with directions and nutritional information stamped on their packets.

Napoleon is supposed to have said that "an army travels on its stomach." Americans are fortunate enough to travel on stomachs filled with nutritious and tasty food.

Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620.

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