KABUL -- U.S. troops across Afghanistan are preparing for a reunion with a long-lost frenemy.
After years of base build-ups and access to massive dining halls with a substantial selection of ethnic food options and specialty nights, soon many servicemembers instead will be chowing down on a plateful of MRE, or Meals, Ready to Eat — also referred to by nicknames inspired by the packaged food’s taste, or lack thereof.
As U.S. troops strive to meet the Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for international combat troops to leave Afghanistan, the American military is mandating sweeping changes as support services also decline. Changes include consolidating housing and reduction of contract labor, as well as changes to the soldiers’ daily diet. All dining halls will replace two of the current four hot meals per day with MREs or Unitized Group Rations (UGRs), which are similar to a giant MRE.
The hot food reductions are part of a larger plan to return to so-called expeditionary standards, meaning a return to conditions more akin to those during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The deadline for all bases to conform to the new guidelines is Oct. 1, though the process has already begun, said Brig. Gen. Steven Shapiro, who is helping to implement the new rules.
Shapiro echoed coalition commanders’ assertions of success in Afghanistan, even amid continuing violence and a rash of coalition deaths at the hands of their Afghan counterparts.
“The fact that we’re winning, it manifests itself in these expeditionary standards,” Shapiro said.
Deployed troops had mixed feelings about the impending changes.
Sgt. Michael Day, a combat engineer at Kandahar Air Field, said he understands the need to scale back services, but that chow is the wrong thing to skimp on.
“It’s great for, I guess, saving money and cutting back on contractors … but there’s a lot more things you can cut back,” he said. “It’s not fair to the soldiers doing the daily grind.”
Spc. Angel Gonzalez, with 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery Unit, said he understands the rationale for cutting back in order to leave the country, but he said there will be an inevitable effect on morale.
“It wouldn’t be that bad since they’re cutting soldiers back, but still, that chow is a morale booster really,” he said. “It’s something you look forward to in your day. It gets you going through the day, that hot meal, and those fresh drinks.”
Sgt. 1st Class Jamie Villarreal, also with 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery Unit, said the new meal regimen would be no different than the conditions troops faced at the beginning of the Iraq War and said the MRE offerings have improved.
“The quicker we get out of here, the better,” he said. “We go back home, be around family and friends, so there’s nothing bad about this.”
Amongh other changes Shapiro said troops will see are:
• Housing will be consolidated as the military closes buildings in advance of shutting down bases. This means many troops sleeping two to a room may have to double up, though they are unlikely to be moved into tents.
• Post exchange stores will reduce their selection, a process that has already begun.
• Vendors, including the restaurants along Kandahar Air Field’s boardwalk, will start closing, so there will be fewer dining and shopping options at the larger bases.
• Although gyms will not be closed and MWRs will remain open, some of the specialty events troops at large bases have become accustomed to, such as salsa and bingo nights, may disappear.
• Soldiers are likely to take over many of the jobs contractors have been doing for years, such as food service, as the military starts sending contractors out of the country.
The transition will be gradual and base commanders will have latitude to decide which meals to cut, though breakfast and the midnight meal, generally the least-attended offerings, are the most likely to go. Bases will go through their remaining stocks of food before reducing the number of hot meals offered, Shapiro said.
“You almost have to eat your way to this new standard,” he said.
One service that will not be affected is emergency medical care, Shapiro said. The military will still keep in place the so-called “golden hour” standard that seriously wounded troops can get to a trauma center within an hour of being injured on the battlefield. The only change in medical care may be that outpatient services are transferred to larger bases.
“We’re not going to sacrifice health and safety,” he said.
Shapiro explained that troops will continue to have access to wireless Internet, which he said is key to morale.
“As long as I can Skype with my wife and my kids at the end of the day, I’m having a good day,” he said.
The military has rolled out an awareness campaign about the entire transition process, including American Forces Network ads with soldiers talking about how losing amenities means they are closer to going home. A series of posters, with the theme “expeditionary in, expeditionary out,” is more colorful, with one featuring a marine eating a scorpion as a humorous example of what “expeditionary” will not mean. Another poster will feature a display of the various MRE menus.
Of course, this news is likely to bring snickers from troops based at remote combat outposts, many of which have never had any of the trappings of larger bases, such as Bagram Air Field, a logistical hub near Kabul with a Pizza Hut and Popeyes on Disney Drive.
Shapiro said the changes are expected to result in a savings of 10 to 20 percent in contracting costs, as well as canceled construction contracts worth roughly $1 billion. But he stressed that the financial benefit is a bonus, rather than the reason for the changes.
-- Stars and Stripes reporter Alex Pena contributed to this report.