NATICK, Mass.—When Lt. Dave Moore visited infantry units in the remote, rugged mountains of Afghanistan late last year, the Navy medical officer was surprised to hear from many soldiers and Marines that they had lost significant weight.
After conducting more than 150 interviews with medics, officers and troops on the ground, Moore concluded that the portable rations called "Meals, Ready-to-Eat"--long derided by troops, but valued by the Pentagon for their indestructibility--were not doing the job, causing the soldiers to shed pounds that they very much needed.
Moore's conclusions have raised concern among military leaders, as well as designers of the field rations at the Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center outside Boston.
Moore stressed in an interview that the service members he surveyed represented only a small portion of those fighting in Afghanistan -- infantry troops deployed to desolate locations where MREs and local cuisine were the only options--but nonetheless he concluded that up to 1,300-calorie MREs were falling short.
A nutrition deficit, he added, could potentially result in fatigue, impaired brain function and lackluster performance.
Recognizing that the reports of weight loss are serious, the Combat Feeding Directorate is planning to ship about 4,000 prototypes of a new meal called the First Strike Ration to Iraq and Afghanistan. Designed for limited use, the ration contains about twice the calories of an MRE.
The U.S. military has used technology to pinpoint targets with smart bombs, and it can deploy thousands of warriors to a flash point within days. But feeding troops well at the tip of the spear remains one of the most elusive tasks for the U.S. war machine.
While mess halls in Afghanistan and Iraq provide the troops at bases three square meals a day, soldiers on the front lines often subsist for long stretches on MREs. These include entrees processed at high temperatures and kept in air-sealed pouches to maintain a shelf life of three years. Other typical components include dehydrated beverage mixes and snacks like peanut butter, crackers and nuts. Dietitians recommend soldiers eat three MREs a day.
At the small military installation in Natick, food scientists and dietitians with the Combat Feeding Directorate, which designs the MREs, acknowledged that weight loss among the troops has become an issue.
Dr. Andrew Young, a researcher at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick, said his agency has begun collecting data on the weight of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has already found anecdotal evidence that service members, particularly those in Afghanistan, are losing 20 to 35 pounds on their deployments.
Much of the problem is caused by heavy packaging, Young said. Troops on dismounted patrols often "field-strip" their bulky MRE packs, bringing along only part of the meals, to reduce the weight of their rucksacks and save room for cargo such as ammunition. In the process, they throw away calories, Young said.
"The MRE is designed to provide the caloric needs of the largest percentage of war fighters," he said. "The issue is operational constraints that are imposed on the warriors that prevent them from consuming the optimal calories."
Moore agreed that field-stripping is a problem, but he also blamed bland food and menus that don't meet the needs for high-intensity fighting.
"The MRE doesn't provide enough calories," Moore said in a telephone interview from the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif. "If you're in the mountains, you need 4,500 calories a day. Even if a soldier eats everything in the MRE, which they rarely do, they're going to be running deficient of calories, and over a period of time they're going to lose weight."
High-altitude environments can cause anorexia, but Moore said the troops he spoke with had acclimated. The military has higher-calorie rations available for long-range and cold-weather patrols, but they are significantly more expensive and are not widely distributed.
The MRE, which costs the Defense Department about $7.25 per meal, was first introduced in 1980 with a dozen different menus, including a few that soldiers deemed inedible, such as Smoky Franks, which soldiers called the Four Fingers of Death, or Chicken a la King, which was known as Chicken a la Death.
When the MRE went to war in the early 1990s, it fared little better with troops on the ground in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, who derisively referred to the rations as Meals Refused by Everyone.
The MRE developed such a poor reputation that former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell ordered it overhauled. In 1995, the National Academy of Sciences found that troops were under-consuming their rations by 1,000 calories per day.