What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part II

You Learn How to Eat Anything Put in Front of You

There is a lot of truth to Dan Rosenthal‘s quip that grown men will wait in line for a juice box and some reheated macaroni to eat in the dirt. When you are starving and have been working in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, food tastes really good, regardless of what it actually tastes like. I’ve always said the best flavors on any food are free and starving. You’ll eat anything, even the artificially tasteless food given out by the food preparation experts that were the cooks. It was apparently like that because people could be allergic to things with flavor, so why bother and just remove all of them. Regardless, even they tasted delicious depending on what you had endured for the last few days. Essentially, flavor is inversely related to suffering endured. Remember that. It might save your life.

I remember when I first arrived in Iraq I went to the dinner one day with one of my Corporals and the two Gunnies. The Gunnies were much more experienced than either us and this was far from their first war. Still, everything was new to me. I was surprised to see the size and scale of the chow hall. There is a few moments of cognitive dissonance when you enter the chow halls in Iraq. They are much larger and more effort put into them than anything you endured during training. It was better than what was offered in Yuma training, anyway. I stood in line and took what was offered. There was something fried and something green. Fork ready, I sat down and prepared to eat when the Corporal among us asked me if I knew what it was I was eating. He pointed to the fried nugget like objects on the plate. I looked, examined, and thought for a second. I hadn’t the foggiest clue.

“You know, I don’t care. I expect you to tell me they are fried goat intestines or camel testicals or something, but I just don’t care at this point. I’m hungry and they’re fried so I am going to eat them.”

I took my fork and skewered one, put it in my mouth, and attempted to identify the flavor. I wasn’t successful, but it wasn’t bad. So I went on to eat another.

“Oh… well, they’re mussels… like what people scrape off the side of ships.”

“Hmm…” I said with the mystery meat still filling my mouth. “Well, that’s not so bad when you go in assuming it was fried camel balls now is it?”

The Gunnies just laughed.

The truth was, I was always a very picky eater until I joined the Marine Corps. That said, in the worst of times, food was actually pretty good. Maybe by the end of boot camp I just wasn’t that picky anymore. During training it was bland, but bland isn’t exactly the same as bad. It’s just eh. By 2005 MREs, Meal Ready to Eat, are pretty good unless you just have really bad luck. You can mix and match, trade up and there was even a cookbook that circulated on how to juryrigg oddly appetizing if not aesthetically displeasing concoctions. For instance, cocoa powder and creamer make pudding! And you can make grilled cheese with spreadable cheese, two breads and the engine block of a humvee as well. Let that depressing thought boil for a minute. Perhaps it was just something you get used to, but I enjoyed them most of the time.

What I actually miss was the chow halls. Yes, I miss them and those who have been over understand. I wanted to mention this because this fact would probably surprise most people who have the wrong idea of what the war was like. If you were lucky enough to be on one of the big bases for a while you would get to eat at the chow halls which were these massive cafeterias. They served food so good I was actually in a state of shock that this was what war was like. I’m really serious about this and most won’t believe, but we had steak every week and the first time I ever experienced lobster or pecan praline ice-cream was in Iraq. I know that wasn’t everyone’s experience, but as I said, I was lucky.

I have heard since coming back that a lot of people are angry about this. Most Marines will tell you about how they had it so much worse. Most really didn’t since the majority never even went to Iraq and still a lot would never want to admit that we had it this good. That said, there were many who had it really rough, and I respect that. Getting sent out to Hit or Camp Korean Village in 2005 was no small achievement and the accommodations, even two years into the war were, shall I say, not yet 5 star quality. That said, if that is one of you reading this, really, my heart goes out to you. You have the gratitude of the nation for what you endured. Congratulations. Here is your medal and a cookie. Please pass the ketchup.

Having said all that, many people who never deployed, as well as many who were never part of the military at all, cry foul at the egregious spending of the Department of Defense on $50 dinners for the military. I don’t know if those figures are an exaggeration or not, or just some idiot who took the military’s entire food budget, including facilities, staff, transportation, plus food and then just divided it by individual meals. I also don’t know people just don’t understand how logistically hard it is to get food that passes American health standards in that sort of quantity to warzones, but if you are one of those people who think there is something wrong with the fact, perhaps you should consider this. Literally the best thing that could happen to me on any given day was having waffles with peanut butter smothered in hot syrup with a side of eggs and an orange for breakfast. Imagine that. That isn’t just a good breakfast, that is the guaranteed to be the best thing that will happen to me that day. The only good things I could imagine on most days revolved around food and phone calls. I hadn’t seen my wife in months. I lived in a tent, slept on a cot, my roommate didn’t bathe, my bosses were [expletives deleted], and I caught athletes foot a month ago from the showers that I will never get rid of. I hadn’t had a day off since I got here and oh, did I mention that we got bombed on a semi-regularly basis? This meal and more importantly, the twenty minutes of renewing socialization where my friends and I can unwind, is all we have. What more do you want to take away from us?

That question aside, there is a rational reason for the “enormously superfluous” spending of the US military on the grounds of food. Basic comforts, where they could be controlled, greatly affect troop morale. During Vietnam and World War II, the vast majority of people who became casualties were not because they suffered gorey bullet and shrapnel wounds. They weren’t casualties in the normal way respected by non-military folk, but were actually psychiatric casualties succumbing to stresses far outside the expected normal human experience. As it turns out, the Brits may have solved this first in World War I where they would cycle troops out of the trenches every ten days or so to the rear where they could have hot food and showers for a few days before going back. It seemed that they were the first to fight a war like that without suffering the impossible to imagine psychological damage that we are only now starting to understand. Basically, food isn’t really a luxury. I was surprised how often, during times when we would be way, way out there in extremely inconvenient conditions, some officer would go so far out of his way to make sure we had “hot” chow. I didn’t feel we needed all the attention, but sometimes, Hell itself couldn’t stop these men. After researching and understanding the mental effects of war on warriors, I’m starting to see that they did this for more than just purely altruistic good leadership. In those situations, it may be another inoculation, this time against future mental breakdown from prolonged poor morale in the middle of a warzone.

So the next time you hear someone say that it’s stupid that people in a war zone are getting to eat so good, at least consider that there is probably more to that decision than that the General just likes ice cream. Perhaps you should remind the person complaining so much that spending a little on food for a deployed service member is far less than spending on a lifetime of potential psychiatric disability payouts. It might actually do well to remind them that at the end of the day, they still get to go home while probably never feeling the pressures military guys feel the moment they leave the chow hall.


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