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The drawdown diet: Marines steamed by loss of hot meal at Afghanistan base

Chris Hondros / Getty Images file

A U.S. Marine MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) ration package is seen in a transport vehicle in March 2010 near Khan Neshin, southern Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Marines at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan will lose a key daily meal starting Saturday, causing some to forgo a hot breakfast and others to work six-plus hours without refueling on cooked food, according to Marines at the base and Marine Corps officials.

The midnight ration service — known there as “midrats" — supplies breakfast to Marines on midnight-to-noon shifts and dinner to Marines who are ending noon-to-midnight work periods. It's described as one of the few times the Marines at Leatherneck can be together in one place.

The base, which is located in Afghanistan’s southwestern Helmand Province, flanked by Iran and Pakistan, also will remove its 24-hour sandwich bar. It plans to replace the dishes long offered at midnight with pre-packaged MREs, said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Cliff Gilmore, who has been deployed in Afghanistan since February. 

The moves, though unpopular with many Marines on the ground and their families back home, are emblematic of the massive drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan and the dismantling of U.S. military facilities. More than 30,000 U.S. service members will leave Afghanistan in coming months as the U.S. prepares to hand responsibility for security to Afghan forces in 2014.

While no Marine at Camp Leatherneck agreed to speak on the record, many are privately angry about the hit on base morale.

"This boils my skin. One of my entire shifts will go 6.5 hours without a meal. If we need to cut back on money I could come up with 100 other places,” one Leatherneck-based Marine wrote in an email this week to his wife and shared with NBC News. (The Marine declined to speak on the record.) “Instead, we will target the biggest contributor to morale. I must be losing my mind. What is our senior leadership thinking? I just got back from flying my ass off and in a few days, I will not have a meal to replenish me after being away for over 9 hours.”

Brennan Linsley / AP file

U.S. Marines enter the chow hall for dinner, left, after taking turns clearing ammo from the chambers of their weapons into a barrel, right, at Camp Leatherneck, in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, in September 2009.

Until Saturday, Leatherneck’s dining facility will offer its customary four meals per day. After June 1, the menu drops to three daily meals and, eventually, there will be only two hot meals served, Gilmore revealed in an email to the impacted Marines, adding: “Any time a dining hall meal is eliminated it will be replaced from a plentiful stock of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat — or any one of several creative acronyms our Marines have come up with.)”

“The fact is our force in Afghanistan is shrinking fast and all the creature comforts and services deployed military-members have grown accustomed to over the past decade are going to be reduced," Gilmore wrote in an email to NBC News. “When serving we are challenged to endure different things — to face different challenges — over time. But we're an odd bunch, we Marines — probably no surprise that we'll complain more about losing the sandwich bar on the way out than we did about getting shot at on the way in.”

The tactical reason for the cooking scale-down is that the people who are assigned to “support services” — such as food workers — “need to go home before the people who provide the security which enables those services,” Gilmore wrote. “This is a natural outcome of the drawdown process unrelated to sequestration or the ongoing budget issues back in the States.”

Back home, spouses and friends of the troops in Afghanistan are criticizing the loss of hot meals as a poor logistical choice that will impact the service members' overall nutrition, energy and spirits. 

“MREs are an alternative for when you can’t get to healthy food. They're supposed to be for desperation,” said Babette Maxwell, founder and executive director of Military Spouse Magazine, the wife of a Navy pilot and an advocate for service members and their families. “These guys have six to nine months left on their deployment. These are highly athletic and highly physical people, toting guns, not working any less now than before — and not working out any less either. Now, they’re short a meal and they don’t have any healthy alternatives.”

According to the Marine Corps, a typical MRE may contain chili with beans, cornbread, cheese spread, crackers, a toaster pastry, a “dairyshake,” red pepper, a spoon, a flameless heater and a “hot beverage bag.”

To fill the hot food gap in Afghanistan, a group of U.S.-based military advocates and military-family members recently launched a Facebook page — called “Breakfast for Bagram" — to spur food donations that will be mailed to troops all around Afghanistan. The page states: “We are here to help collect and send non-perishable breakfast type foods to the deployed troops on the 17 bases in Afghanistan that are not currently serving breakfast 'hot chow' and Midnight chow due to the budget cuts.”

Gilmore described cooked-meal reduction as part of a larger effort to “become increasingly austere” as the force shrinks, but he said the base members will not face an unhealthy calorie shortage.

“The Marines here at Leatherneck may have to endure the monotony of a limited menu and sometimes an MRE — but they will not suffer from malnutrition unless they choose not to eat,” Gilmore said. 

At home, some military family members nonetheless called the change a mistake. 

“Psychologically, midrats is probably the most important of all the meals because that’s the big social time — where first (shift) crew is coming off and second (shift) crew is coming on,” Maxwell said."That's where you get the esprit de corps, the camaraderie. It's not just the food you're taking away, it's their social sustenance.”  

For millions of America's men and women in uniform, dinner comes in brown plastic pouches called MREs: Meals Ready-to-Eat. They are feats of engineering and food science, and some of them are downright tasty. Brian Williams reports.