CAMP CASEY, South Korea -- Efforts to encourage U.S. soldiers to eat at on-base dining facilities haven't gone down well with some hungry troops, who say they'd rather spend subsistence allowances at fast-food joints or off-base restaurants.
A new Army policy called Essential Unit Messing -- which went into effect Feb. 1 -- requires soldiers deployed with rotational units on the peninsula to eat at the dining facilities or pay out of pocket for food.
Under the policy, the Army deducts meal costs from a subsistence allowance that troops used to be free to spend wherever they liked, Army spokesman Paul Prince told the Army Times.
Despite the change, several dozen soldiers, including some from the 1st "Ironhorse" Armored Brigade Combat Team, were eating lunch Wednesday at Camp Casey's food court. The Fort Hood, Texas-based unit is there on a nine-month rotational deployment.
Spc. Dantanian Pina, 21, of Rio Rancho, N.M., said he quickly tired of dining facility food and prefers to go off base, paying out of pocket for local fare such as bulgogi (beef stew).
"It's better than the DFAC (dining facility)," said Pina, adding that he liked the freedom of the old system.
Adding insult to injury, some have complained the dining facilities weren't giving them enough to eat.
Amanda Ramirez, of Killeen, Texas, whose husband, Steve, is a sergeant serving with the Ironhorse brigade, posted photos online showing the small food portions that soldiers from the unit were getting at dining facilities last month.
"I cannot form a well-written response as to how mad I am right now," Ramirez said on her Facebook page above the pictures of fairly small portions of chicken, eggs and potatoes.
But portion sizes can vary, Pina said. "It depends what time you go there," he said.
Only about 900 to 1,100 soldiers were eating at chow halls on Camp Casey/Hovey during the first rotational deployment of an infantry brigade to South Korea last year, Maj. Gen. Ted Martin, 2nd Infantry Division commander, told Army Times last month.
Soldiers from that unit -- the 2nd "Blackjack" Armored Brigade Combat Team -- got the old allowance to buy their own groceries or eat on the economy or at other on-post restaurants. The new policy means more than 4,000 Ironhorse soldiers will be dining at the chow halls.
Facilities at Camp Casey/Hovey aren't equipped to handle the extra customers, Ramirez said.
"There is not enough food, so food is rationed out," she said. "These are grown men and women that are being fed child portions. Soldiers at that, who burn more energy and calories on a day-to-day basis than a typical adult man or woman."
To help her husband get by, Ramirez said she spent $107 to ship $150 worth of nonperishable groceries to him in South Korea.
"Keep in mind that we have a pretty well-rounded/healthy diet when he's home," she said. "As you can imagine, nonperishable [equals] subhealthy. Big Army is trying to save money, but it's costing the soldier more."
When Stars and Stripes contacted her last week, Ramirez said soldiers are starting to see improvements.
"We just need to get them to offer more healthy/nutritious meals with shorter wait time," she said.
Army officials declined to be interviewed about food in South Korea; however, officials haven't received complaints about the chow halls, Eighth Army spokesman Col. David Patterson said in an email.
"We have no negative customer comments from normal channels or command channels," he said. "Many of the informal comments that were passed through the command channels were very positive."
Dining facilities on the peninsula adhere to the same portion sizes prescribed for facilities throughout the Army, Patterson said.
"Proper nutrition is key to maintaining readiness," he said. "We pride ourselves on soldiers who are physically and mentally fit and ready to 'fight tonight.' "
Eighth Army prepared for the increased numbers of soldiers in its dining facilities, Patterson said.
"When we saw this change in policy coming, [2nd Infantry Division] took major steps to set their DFACs up so that they would succeed," he said. "2ID really had to take a systematic look at the number of personnel required for support."
Soldiers stationed in South Korea have a variety of eating choices, ranging from commissaries, Korean snack bars and food courts, Patterson said.
"Meals in the dining facilities are offered free of charge to soldiers here, but they may choose to eat elsewhere at their own expense," he said.
At U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, for example, the Talon Café saw its average workday headcount rise from 556 to 781 per meal, he said. The Provider Grill's average workday headcount increased from 297 to 493 per meal.
"The soldiers are eating well, and the DFACs are ensuring soldiers are fed in a timely manner," Patterson said.
Food is a priority for commanders, said David Johnson, a retired Army officer with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington.
"Napoleon's famous saying was that an Army marches on its stomach," he said. "It's a commander's responsibility to ensure that food is healthy and sufficient."
Soldiers expect to dine on Meals, Ready to Eat in the field, but in garrison they typically get an allowance for food, Johnson said.
Dining facilities are funded based on head-count in previous months, so a surge in patronage under the new policy may have strained their food budgets, he said.
The Army's efforts to fill the dining facilities may be related to the operational environment in Korea, Johnson added.
Tensions have been high near the Demilitarized Zone in recent months after North Korea's recent nuclear bomb and missile tests.
"Local restaurants may not be as secure as the dining facilities," he said. "You can't let the dining facility system die, especially in the environment they are in."