Vegetarian in the Military
By Ann Marie Brokmeier
In a poll that The Vegetarian Resource Group conducted in 2009, it was estimated that three percent of Americans are vegetarian. If this is also true of the military, that would mean approximately 40,000 servicemen and women are following meatless diets. This is much too large a number to ignore.
Decisions about what to eat on a daily basis generally may not be a problem for most military members, as there are many varieties of food available on each military base. However, for vegetarian and vegan troops, getting a meal can be a bigger ordeal than it should be. Being aware of the U.S. military's regulations and options (at all levels), as well as what is practical and realistic, is vital for these troops' nutritional well-being.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
In one release from a medical center on Fort Hood, Texas, it states that "the Army didn't promise to meet all your dietary desires" and then goes on to describe vegetarian diets from "most-restrictive" to "less-restrictive." This is an unfortunate example of the military's lack of support for vegetarians and vegans. I have found no written rules or regulations that specifically protect or deny the vegetarian lifestyle. There are regulations protecting religious preference, and some of these such as Seventh-day Adventist are vegetarian, which is why the military has implemented meals to reflect these choices. The military considers the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines when creating a meal plan in the dining facility.
The dining halls in which most on-duty military members and all trainees eat have an effect on vegetarian troops. Although there are many vegetarian options (such as vegetable soup, sizable salad bars, and various meatless entrées) in most dining facilities, it has been said that these meatless dishes are carelessly littered with chicken stock, bacon to flavor, dairy products, and eggs. Most of the time, the servers and even the chefs who are asked about meat products in food have little knowledge about the actual ingredients.
Recently, the military's dining facilities have become more aware of the vegan movement. Darles Bayless, a 19-year Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, states, "The service seems to understand that not everyone wants a slice of pig in everything that is green."
Most on-duty troops are able to eat outside the dining hall (i.e. off-base, in the Post Exchange/Base Exchange food court, or food from home). However, trainees (enrolled in basic training/boot camp or in technical training) are expected to eat in the dining hall. This can pose a serious problem for vegan recruits.
When troops head out to the grocery store on base, there are usually many different options readily available. Commissaries sometimes carry even more food options than civilian grocery stores. Most commissaries offer international foods (such as German, Japanese, Korean, and Latino) to cater to the diverse military community. In addition, they also stock vegetarian and vegan foods. Most commissaries (even the smaller ones) have a fairly large produce section and sell vegetarian-specific products, such as tofu, soymilk, and various meat alternatives.
As far as the average vegan consumer goes, there is no difference between the items that can be carried in a military commissary and in a standard civilian grocery store. The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) even has a program in which you can request a special order of products that cannot be found in your personal commissary.
MREs - MEALS READY-TO-EAT
In all branches of the United States military, there are instances in which participating in a field training exercise or deployment is mandatory and non-negotiable. During these situations, troops consume Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs). If kept at no more than 80 degrees, these meals have a shelf life of up to three years. (If kept at 100 degrees, they have a shelf life of six months.) Although the MRE was developed in 1980, it wasn't until 1993 that the Force Sustainment Systems Development Group in Natick, Massachusetts, began researching and producing lacto-ovo vegetarian meals (as well as kosher and halal meals). Vegan troops will have a more difficult time eating MREs since most of the entrées, and even some of the side items, involve eggs and/or milk products. There are four meatless options out of the 24 MREs that are available each year. There have been mixed reviews about the quality of the MREs, with several people saying they are flavorless whether they are meatless or not.
DINING FACILITIES OVERSEAS
On most major bases, there are restaurant kiosks, such as Orange Julius, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Taco Bell, and most troops (vegetarian or not) have been happy to have them. These chains provide a taste of home, as well as better meals than MREs or makeshift dining facilities. However, according to one CNN article, these restaurants are being shut down in certain areas.
PRACTICAL AND REALISTIC
There are some resources that military members can utilize, one of the most helpful being a dietitian at the base's medical center. Most medical centers will have a dietitian on site; if they do not, they will refer you to another base or to a civilian dietitian.
It is important to realize that fresh produce is not always practical in some places, such as in an overseas war zone. In these dining facilities, most vegetables and fruits are canned. This is most common during basic training and deployment.
Army Regulation (AR)670-1 section 27-3 states, "The issue boot is made of black leather." It continues, "As an option, soldiers may wear commercial boots of a design similar to that of a standard issue boot," but that boot "must be made of black leather ... Boots made of patent leather or poromeric are not authorized."
This can be an issue for vegans who do not wear animal products. After scouring the web and contacting various combat boot companies, the only response was from Altama, one of the military's largest boot suppliers. The company stated that they only make full-grain leather boots, with no response regarding a plan to make vegan-friendly boots.
For the vegan troops, one compromise is to purchase used leather boots.
VEGETARIAN MILITARY PERSONNEL AND THEIR EXPERIENCES
Jim McGuire, who has been vegetarian for 42 years and completely vegan for 12, became vegetarian while stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Benning on the Alabama-Georgia border. During that time, there were few meatless options in the dining facilities, as "the Army mess sergeant prided himself on ways in which he could include a certain amount of meat ... in virtually every so-called vegetable preparation." Most days, McGuire drank only milk for his nutrition. Not only were there a lack of vegetarian food options, but there was a lack of fellow vegetarians with which to empathize. For example, during a deployment with the First Cavalry Division in An Khe during Vietnam, McGuire says that he was "the only vegetarian on the entire base."
Senior Airman Randy Silber, currently stationed at Petersen Air Force Base in Colorado, has been in the U.S. Air Force for more than three years and recently enlisted for another four years. Priding himself on maintaining his health, he says that "the military should incorporate more vegetarian options" to promote a healthful lifestyle. The food offerings are not terrible, but he says that Air Force dining facilities "mainly cater to the carnivorous airmen." Even though he only went through basic training less than four years ago, SrA Silber says that the lack of available vegetarian options during that time could sometimes leave one feeling malnourished. However, once he was out of basic training and into technical training, it was easy to "resume a steady vegetarian (lifestyle) again."
Heather and Brandon Niles, a married U.S. Air Force veteran couple, both became vegan in 2007. Heather, who served from 2002 until 2008, said that her biggest challenge was her fellow troops. She states, "Most of them really didn't understand. Since it's a macho kind of atmosphere anyway, they just didn't get why I was doing it." She says that, as far as dining options, vegans are limited only during basic training and deployment, when the food is less readily available.
Her husband, Brandon, served in the Air Force from 2002 until 2006. During basic training, he recommends that new recruits "simply do the best they can" and that it is important to not stand out in that strict training environment. The rushed in-and-out dining process during basic training can prove to be difficult for trainees, as there is "very little time and choice in what's given to you." However, Brandon said that being vegan can be done effectively during daily activities and even during technical school, as "there are many options available for both vegans and vegetarians to get a healthy meal" in most dining facilities.
The Nileses do have high hopes for vegans in the military. As Heather puts it, "You have control over your life and choices," and that is empowering.
If you would like to share your experience of being a vegetarian in the military or have advice for others, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to share your stories in future issues of Vegetarian Journal.
Ann Marie Brokmeier grew up in a military family and has worked at a military PX.