When Soldier Food Gets Dressed Up For a Promotion

Senior food technologist Julie Smith serves the newest mobile combat fare to U.S. Army Col. Gary Vroegindewey and World War II veteran Wilfred McCarty at a recent Pentagon tasting.
Senior food technologist Julie Smith serves the newest mobile combat fare to U.S. Army Col. Gary Vroegindewey and World War II veteran Wilfred McCarty at a recent Pentagon tasting. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; Page F01

When U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan open group combat rations in the months to come, they might find an unexpected treat: a walnut tea cake that serves 18. And before they even get to it, they'll have chicken pesto pasta and Burgundy beef stew to finish off.

At a recent Pentagon demonstration of advances in field food, a group of Army veterans and young soldiers who had recently returned from Iraq stood shoulder to shoulder with military brass to sample entrees and desserts that will be introduced in war zones over the next few years. A compact one-day food supply for mobile combat troops -- the First Strike Ration -- also made its debut.

The media event, hosted by Army Secretary Pete Geren, showcased selected rations developed at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. In a crowded Pentagon office corridor, two folding tables were turned into an instant buffet for more than 100 invited guests. Small samples of more than a dozen dishes were served by members of the Natick staff.

The new menu items will arrive at the front lines in several guises. The chicken pesto pasta, for example, will be available as a Unitized Group Ration, or UGR-E, a new self-contained module that can provide 18 hot meals in 30 to 45 minutes, replacing the need for a field kitchen. Other entrees, such as the Southwest beef and black beans that will replace the unpopular beef enchilada, are destined as MREs, which stands for meal ready to eat.

Depending on their location, most U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan eat in mess halls managed by catering contractors. The MRE and UGR-E were designed for Special Operations forces, military police and artillery soldiers in remote locations.

Soldiers can choose from among 24 MRE menus, up from 12 in 1998. On average, 3 million cases (36 million meals) of MREs per year are shipped overseas in peacetime, while hundreds of millions are shipped in wartime.

The UGR-E consists of four stacked trays -- one each for the entree, vegetable, starch and dessert -- packed in a cardboard box the size of a small suitcase. Chemical reactive packets to heat the meal are tucked under the trays. At the pull of a tab, a saline solution hits the sealed packets and the heating process begins.

Part of the Army Field Feeding System, the ration has a shelf life of 18 months when stored at 80 degrees; it drops to six months at 100 degrees. For the most part, field rations are stored in climate-controlled warehouses. UGR-Es are available to troops in seven breakfast menus and 14 lunch/dinner menus.

The set calorie count for operational rations is substantial -- 3,600 per day -- and the foods at the Pentagon event tasted that filling. World War II veteran William Kelley said he enjoyed the entrees he tried, which included garlic mashed potatoes and barbecued pork.

"It's all good," said Kelley, 86, who served in Europe and lives at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest. "What they served us in combat -- the K rations -- were terrible. They gave us eggs cooked in flour that came in small boxes."

Army Reserve cadet and Arlington resident Kadija Kargbo, 26, praised the beef teriyaki. "This is good. The meat is soft and tender," she said after a bite.

I was less satisfied than Kelley and Kargbo with what the Natick chefs had produced. I found the chicken pesto pasta mushy, with an overwhelming aroma and taste of dried basil. Slices of meat in the beef brisket selection swam in a gluey, salty sauce. A barbecued pork wrap had an artificially smoky, even burned, taste.

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