Army rolls out new combat rations

March 5, 2008 6:48:50 PM PST
Don Egolf remembers what Army chow looked like when he served in Germany in World War II: a tin of scrambled eggs and bacon bits that he pried open with a tiny can opener. On Wednesday at the Pentagon the 102nd Infantry Division vet pocketed one of those irksome little openers, the P-38, as a souvenir. Then he dug into the latest in combat cuisine, a plate of blackened catfish, teriyaki chicken, little french toast squares and pumpkin cake - no opener needed.

The Army offered up samples of the food as it rolled out its newest innovation - special packets of easy-to-eat, high-nutrition, high-calorie foods designed for mobile forces. The chow, mostly bagged finger-type foods that soldiers can just tear open and eat on the run, will be available in the field next month.

That's not the way it was in his day, Egolf noted.

"When we did get to eat, we got K-rations," Egolf recalled, referring to the meals of dried biscuit, canned meat and eggs plus cigarettes that soldiers were issued during the early wars.

The new food "is delicious. This food is seasoned," said Egolf, who now lives at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington.

Spread out on tables along the Pentagon's third floor Wednesday at lunch time, containers of garlic mashed potatoes, barbecue pork, beef and black beans, and Mediterranean chicken simmered as long lines of soldiers waited for a taste. Those new offerings will be available to troops in MREs (meals ready to eat) over the next three years.

Other soldiers snatched up sample packages of jalapeno cashews, chocolate-covered coffee beans and the always popular beef jerky.

Fueling the Army's fighting forces long has been a subject of much research, as the military works to make the food more nutritious, easier to carry and better tasting.

The Army knows that food and mail delivery have the biggest impact on soldiers' morale, so the Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center conducts continued testing on new and improved ways to feed the force.

"When you're eating the same things, three times a day, taste and variety is a big thing," said Sgt. 1st Class James Laverty, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. He said the food has changed even since his first tour in Afghanistan when the war began.

"It's the taste," he said. "Hands down, that is the number one thing I was impressed with."

Army leaders are calling the new high-calorie Natick offering the First Strike Ration, and it would serve troops like Laverty, who head into combat first and are on the move. The packet is good for three meals, and includes about 3,000 calories - designed for soldiers moving hard and fast, carrying heavy packs and equipment.

Inside are easy-to-eat, high-protein, high-carbohydrate foods that soldiers can stuff in their rucksacks and chomp on the run, including a pepperoni pocket sandwich, bacon cheddar pocket, tuna, beef jerky, wheat bread, cheese spread, applesauce, several power bars and even a pack of caffeine gum.

"The last thing you want to do is give them something heavy to carry," said Jeremy Whitsitt, outreach coordinator for the Pentagon's combat feeding program. "They can eat these when they're on patrol or while they're marching down the road."

The larger MREs, meanwhile, come with individual flameless heaters and are more elaborate.

The southwest beef and black beans got the nod from Army Secretary Pete Geren, who sampled some of the fare.

Using the well-worn adage, he said: "The Army travels on its stomach."