December 11, 2007:
In Iraq, food has become the
enemy. Four years ago, many troops were eating MREs (freeze dried field
rations), which kept you alive, healthy, and skinny. But year by year, the D
Facs (dining facilities, or mess halls of yore) got larger and more elaborate,
as did the menus. In the last two years, more meals resembled an invitation to
indulge like you were on a cruise ship. The army had learned, as the navy has
known for a long time, that morale can be improved with food, and lots of it.
Morale usually needs some help in Iraq, where most
of the troops are confined to their bases. There's no booze, and consorting
with local women is out (or at least very, very difficult.) While there are
heavily used gyms on most of the bases, there are also plenty of sedentary
pastimes (video games, flat screen TVs and plenty of DVDs, and Internet
access.) Over the last two years, there has been a growing problem with troops
getting fat. Average weight gain during a year in Iraq is about ten pounds.
That can be a big deal, because the U.S. military has cracked down, over the
last decade, on troops who do not maintain a certain level of physical fitness.
The combat troops never had much trouble with this, as their lives depended on
being in shape, and their training is pretty strenuous. Most of the troops have
non-combat jobs, where they could be chubby and still do their work. The annual
physical fitness tests are finding more troops too heavy to stay in uniform.
These troops are given an opportunity to slim down and get back in shape, but
will be dismissed if they don't slim down.
The army is caught in a bind here, because they are
just barely maintaining their personnel strength during wartime. For every
overweight soldier they toss out, a replacement has to be recruited. And a
major reason for eager recruits not getting in is being too overweight. So the
D-Facs, like the recruiters, are getting into the weight control business.
Menus are being changed, and lower calorie foods are being offered. Eager
recruiters often take overweight, but otherwise qualified, potential recruits,
and coach them to eat better and exercise more. It can take a few months, but
if they get the prospect into shape, they get a good recruit who has
demonstrated the ability to achieve a difficult goal. But for troops doing a
second or third tour in Iraq, a new diet or more gym time is not the solution
for those deployment blues. But an extra slice of pie sure helps.