Vegetarian Action

Vegan in the Army: Specialist Brianna Kearney

by Samantha Gendler

When Brianna Kearney makes a commitment, she means it. She had been vegan for only five months when she enlisted in the U.S. Army. No one would have blamed the petite 17-year-old from a white-collar Connecticut suburb if she decided to put her new diet on hold while going through the notorious six-month basic combat and advanced individual training, but her mind was made up. "I decided internally that I would do it and not give up," she said.

On Earth Day 2013, Kearney sat down to watch the documentary Vegucated and immediately went vegan. "I couldn't believe the way the animals were treated. I never thought about the process they went through," she said. "I realized that if I didn't change my life that I would be supporting horrible factory farming practices and the general mistreatment of animals and the environment."

After eliminating meat and dairy from her diet, Kearney found herself losing weight without counting calories, gaining muscle, and having more energy throughout her day. Her parents followed in her footsteps, and soon the entire family was cooking and eating vegan.

Kearney decided from the beginning that she would not just survive basic training as a vegan, but thrive. "I'm very stubborn and determined; I knew that I needed to do exceptionally well because I didn't want people to blame any weakness on my diet." At the Military Entrance Processing Station, far from the gleaming aisles of her neighborhood Whole Foods, reality started to set in and Kearney realized just how unprepared they were for a vegan. Breakfast was an apple and toast. Lunch was an apple and bread with lettuce. Luckily, once in training, she was able to have oatmeal with fruit and peanut butter and salad with tomatoes, chickpeas, and cucumber. "It started to set in that if I could eat this way and excel, be high-speed, do more, be a great leader, and go beyond what was asked, people would see that there's no difference between what vegans and others can do; they would see it's worth being more prepared for people like me."

Though at first her peers and superiors were skeptical of "the vegan girl," Kearney found them supportive overall, and they were always happy to trade their apples for her meat, pancakes, or candy. One day a drill sergeant stopped her and asked, "Why aren't you drinking your milk? You're going to pass out later!" Kearney respectfully thanked her for the concern and assured her that she was getting enough calories. Eventually, her impressive progress spoke for itself: the questions stopped and people in her platoon began to ask for advice on veganism.

Now out of basic training and serving in the Maryland National Guard, Kearney has been able to eat a much more varied vegan diet. The Postal Exchange at her advanced individual training experience at Fort Meade has soymilk, almond milk, vegan veggie burgers, oatmeal, rice, fruit, veggies, pasta, and potatoes made without butter. If they are traveling, her unit calls ahead and orders her special meals: sometimes vegan pizza, pasta, or an Indian dish. "It's pretty evident that they care. I'm the youngest, and I'm the vegan, but I'm treated with respect."

Kearney has even been able to extend her vegan beliefs beyond her diet to her military apparel. She purchased boots and gloves made of non-animal synthetic materials that meet regulation standards from the brand Altama. "I personally don't buy things that have animal products in them and I am able to follow the Army standards while also following my own beliefs," she said.

Basic training helped Kearney reaffirm how strongly she feels about her vegan beliefs, and she wants other vegans to know it's worth it. "It took a toll on me," she said. "But going through it taught me perseverance and that if I set my mind to something, I can definitely do it."

Samantha Gendler is the Senior Editor of Vegetarian Journal.