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Vegetarians find few choices in mess hall

Mar. 6, 2013 - 11:48AM   |  
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Army Staff Sgt. Liza Reiter feels like crying every time she enters the dining facility at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq.

"I started eating more junk food because I was so hungry," the 399th Combat Support Hospital nurse said. "I'd go through the line, and sometimes I was in tears taking away my empty plate."

Even as workers tossed double helpings of steaks and burgers on every plate, Reiter said she was starving.

She's a vegetarian, and after a few months of salads and pastas and grilled-cheese sandwiches and French fries, she began passing out, suffering mood swings and feeling exhausted. She couldn't find a good supply of protein or iron.

"I knew I would have to fend for myself," she said. "I had no clue how hard it would be. It's funny that we're a hospital unit, but as far as healthy food, there aren't a lot of options."

She found herself longing for Meals, Ready-to-Eat, with their gluey versions of cheese tortellini and veggie burgers. Those same vegetarian varieties initially gave her hope that the military was warming up to war-fighting herbivores.

But as Iraq becomes more garrisonlike, troops generally get hot meals. They're cheaper and better for morale, and usually, no one complains.

So when Reiter complained, she found no relief.

Sure, she could eat bean soup — if the cooks didn't add bacon. She could get iron from collard greens — if the cooks didn't add bacon. And she could enjoy egg burritos — if the cooks didn't add bacon.

"I filled out suggestion forms: ‘Please don't put pork in the greens.' They have pasta, but it's not great for you, and they put meatballs in the sauce. I was told the menu was set. Because we're in a war zone, I haven't really pushed the issue."

When she talked to employees at the dining facility, she was told the meals come pre-mixed, so they couldn't take the meat out of dishes popular with vegetarians.

The troops who run the dining facility at Al Asad said it's not practical to try to serve the small number of vegetarians on base.

"We don't bring in the vegetarian burger," said Marine Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joseph Lee Fore, a food service officer with the 2nd Marine Air Wing. "We stay away from low-acceptability foods ... stuff that people won't eat."

Space also poses a problem, he said, when trying to feed thousands of people: More room for veggie burgers means less room for fried chicken — and there's no doubt at all that the troops will eat the chicken.

He said vegetarians do have options: the salad bar and lots of fruit. But that's a lot of salad — and not a lot of protein. Even the hard-boiled eggs that are usually ubiquitous at salad bars have been put on medical hold because of a bird-flu outbreak in Kuwait.

For the 33-year-old Reiter, a vegetarian for 14 years, it's important not to compromise.

"I think when I was younger, the propaganda got to me," she said, referring to advertisements from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals featuring traumatized chicks and bunnies. "But then it evolved. Now it's for health reasons."

Several members of her family died of heart disease before they turned 60. "I feel like I pay more attention to my diet as a vegetarian," she said.

She's hoping others will, too. When her family found out about her troubles, they began sending dried soups, protein bars and multivitamins in the mail. Her husband keeps all the receipts, and she said she'd like the government to reimburse her for the costs of having to feed herself in a combat zone.

"I'd like to send [the receipts] to my congressman," said Reiter, from Stamford, Conn. "I'm hoping that will make a difference for other vegetarians here."

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