By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Today I watched a noncommissioned officers crush up a packet of crackers, smush up a packet of cheese spread and add them to his packet of beef enchiladas. It wasn't until he started mixing his MRE concoction that he noticed I was watching.
It's not great, he said, but it'll do while in the field. It is certainly nothing like his wife makes, he said wistfully.
Food is an interesting thing in the field. I've written about MREs before -- soldiers' favorites, their least favorites (the Cheese and Vegetable Omelet), how to predict which have the best goodies insides -- but I decided to take a wider look at what soldiers eat when they're in the field.
The soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, get two hot meals a day (breakfast and dinner). MREs are the lunch menu unless one is lucky enough to get a visit from the gut truck, which is conveniently equipped with a credit card machine. Convenience comes at a price -- an extra dollar is added to each order for a machine fee.
The gut truck is covered pickup with drinks on ice, sweets, frozen food and a microwave. It's called the gut truck because if one eats from it often enough, he develops a gut.
Drivers travel from range to range, offering delicacies like honey buns, mini pizzas, burritos, Skittles, Snickers bars, Mountain Dews and energy drinks to soldiers who have been surviving on dishes such as Chicken With Noodles, Meatloaf With Gravy, Vegetable Lasagna Vegetarian and Pork Rib.
I use those as examples because they were the MREs left in the box next to me after lunch today. A noncommissioned officer who had never eaten the dreaded omelet decided to try it. If he hadn't been so brave, I'm sure that'd still be in the box, too. It always is.
I was at a range this morning with Bravo Company when the gut truck showed up. A sergeant who was discussing his job with me was distracted as the truck cover's chrome shined in the sunlight and his voice trailed off. Talk of Bradley fighting vehicles and infantry dismounts was halted as we congregated around the gut truck. Soldiers bought lunch or loaded up on Gatorade and energy drinks.
The distracted sergeant searched in the bed of ice for a concentrated energy drink. He'd been up for several days making sure Bradley crews were where they needed to be and in line to start their gunnery runs when called upon.
The battalion's commander made his way to the gut truck, too,
"I'm just checking out what my soldiers are eating," he said, looking inside.
He pulled out a large can of energy drink and examined the ingredients. He wasn't too impressed. Too much sugar. One might as well eat a candy bar, he said before considering buying a Snickers.
A private first class later criticized his buddy for buying him a low-calorie Gatorade. It didn't taste good, he said, and he needed a solution. He poured a handful of Tropical Skittles into the bottle.
"This is field craft, right here," he said proudly as everyone watched him.
Surely the sugar would make the Gatorade taste better, he joked with his buddy. It didn't.
The yellow Gatorade turned brownish as the dye washed off, and little white pellets clinked around in the bottom of the bottle.
"Well," he said. "It doesn't' taste as much like crap."
I've learned in my years covering the Army that soldiers can sleep anywhere. I, too, have adapted and learned this skill.
Because units' designated times on the ranges are precious, soldiers have to be ready to go -- day or night -- when called. This is most common for Bradley fighting vehicle and tank crews.
They stick close to their vehicles while in the field, sleeping on top of the tanks or the Bradleys' rear seats or lowered back hatches. When coming upon a group of vehicles, like the Bravo Company's Bradley's this afternoon, it isn't uncommon to see soldiers sleeping inside while other crews are on the range.
It doesn't mean soldiers are lazy, it means they're resourceful. A co-worker was once criticized by a civilian for taking photos of soldiers sleeping. We never thought we were making soldiers look bad, we though publishing those images (one of a soldier waiting at the airfield to deploy using a water bottle as a pillow comes to mind) showed an aspect of soldier life. Sleep isn't a definite and one must take advantage of it when they can.
The first time I spent the night in the field, I slept on an Army cot in a large tent with dozens of women soldiers. I wasn't used to being uncomfortable in bed and it was rough. In just a day or two, I got over it. I had to. I went on a short mission at the National Training Center that turned into a very, very long mission. We slept that night in the Humvee. Upright. Wearing full gear. The soldier next to me was a military working dog handler and pulled his legs up on seat so his four-legged partner could stretch out on floor.
I've learned a lot about Army sleeping in few years since that. When I visited the 3rd Brigade Combat Team's 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, in the field last summer, I slept outside in the dirt, propped against my backpack. The infantrymen were there, too, some outside and some inside their Bradley. We talked in the dark, unable to see each other, and I got to know some interesting, cool soldiers.
When I was finally done writing about 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry last night, a soldier escorted me to my sleeping quarters. I would share a camping tent with a noncommissioned officer who was already in bed.
My cot was still folded inside its cardboard box and I was prepared to spread my sleeping bag on the ground rather than fumbling with the cot in the dark. The sergeant got out of bed and put it together for me. I appreciated that a lot.
My sleeping conditions, while simple, were looking pretty good compared to the guys camped out on top of their tanks. Last night, I got the best night of sleep I've had in a while.