Sunday, February 5, 2017
Tales From REFORGER-1987
“You're really going to eat that?” My wife said looking at me as her face morphed into an expression that registered both borderline disgust and sad resignation that she married a man only one step above a primitive and uncultured brute. I paused just long enough to consider her words.
The food item in question was a small portion of my garlic mashed potatoes that had fallen off my fork and impacted on the fake leather bench seat I was sitting. The Italian restaurant we were eating was one of those national chains that will go unnamed, but needless to say the Chicken Bryan entree I had ordered, and which came with garlic mashed potatoes, is one of my favorite meals. So yes, I totally ignored the numerous rules of polite dining etiquette along with simple health concerns and scooped up the errant portion with my fork and savored the delicious flavors without hesitation.
“Remember the rule we had with the kids,” I said once I had swallowed. “It was less than five seconds and I'm sure they wipe down the seats after every customer here.” I further said before craving up another portion of the fried chicken breast careful not to disturb the goat cheese that the chief had spread over it.
“That was just plain wrong.” My wife wearily replied before forcing herself to forget my latest transgression.
“Trust me,” I said enjoying the moment, “it's not the worst thing with food I have ever done.”
“Oh, of that I have no doubt.” She said in such a tone that further discussion of me scooping fallen pieces of food would not be tolerated. A fact that allowed me to stroll down memory lane unmolested by snooty, judgmental people.
Never one to take the direct approach in life, after having spent two years in the South Carolina National Guard I transferred over to the active army in 1986. I had already received my training in the Man Portable Air Defense Systems like the old Redeye and early versions of the Stinger missile as my Military Occupational Specialty, so despite the desire to do something different upon going active duty I found myself assigned to the air defense battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado.
Sometime during the summer of 1987 my unit was chosen from the others in the battalion to take part in one of the old and truly enormous REFORGER exercises that moved both men and material to Western Europe. Just to clarify, REFORGER was one of the better conceived military acronyms that stood for Return of Forces to Germany, which was an annual exercise to practice the quick deployment of American and other NATO allied forces to western Europe in the event of a conflict with the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.
While the charted commercial jetliner my unit, and at least a couple of hundred other soldiers were aboard landed in Amsterdam we weren't allowing any sightseeing. But were quickly hustles off by buses to one of the many propositioned military depot sites to draw vehicles like hummers and old jeeps along with radios and other pieces of equipment. From there we convoyed out of the Netherlands and into the northern parts of West Germany, a drive so damn long that I was forced to pull over to the side of the road to relieve myself. Funny thing about that one little incident, everyone behind my little jeep pulled over as well making my team leader, the other guy in my jeep the defacto convoy commander after I got back in the vehicle and floored the accelerator in an attempt to catch up with the main body. Those were some serious tense minutes because of both the level of civilian traffic on the road as well as the nagging possibility that the rest of the convoy, which was long out of sight, might have made a turn onto another road we wouldn't see resulting in us getting seriously lost. Thankfully, we eventually found the main body of the convoy and followed it to our final, rather anticlimactic destination.
For at least the better part of a month my unit bivouacked in an empty field in what had to be the absolute middle of nowhere West Germany. We're talking scores of what was even then ancient army, two-man pup tents lined up in columns and rows so surgically precise it would have made generals going back to Roman times shutter with glee. I've got to admit, if you could ignored the smell of the manure the farmers were spreading around in the surrounding, active farm fields the area had a pleasant, almost nature reserve atmosphere. The daily temperature ran from comfortable at noon and just a little chilly during the night. The woods surrounding the farm fields were a deep green, which had both a calming effect on us all and dampened the greater part of the sounds coming from the vehicles on the major highway that I was told was three kilometers away. Aside from the smell of the copious amount of manure on the ground, I would have called the area idyllic.
Where things went to metaphorical crap was the food situation. Since arriving in Amsterdam, we had been living off a combination of first generation MRE's, horrendous creations typified by meals like dehydrated beef patty and Chicken a la King and “T-rations”, huge unit-sized meals that were packaged in aluminum trays that looked like old fashioned TV dinners.
The MRE's were nothing less than barely disguised attempts at human experimentation to see how badly hunger could force a soldier to consume things that looked like a petrified brown sponge, in the case of the dehydrated beef patty. Yes, I added water to the package to soften up the "meat" but that is a relative term because no matter how long you waited the entree was still an abomination. Concerning what was euphemistically called Chicken a la King, it more resembled the half digested contents pulled from the stomach of a two-day old corpse. Yes, there were other MRE packages that approached the level of being edible human food, but it required a soldier to use all his or her concentration to think of any other subject as they consumed the required calories needed to complete their duties.
One of the most important tasks in any military conflict is to keep the troops properly fed. It ranks right up there with keeping soldiers healthy and properly equipped. The trouble with feeding troops though is that it is damn inconvenient because moving, storing, and preparing food takes time and effort that could be going to the defeat of the enemy, this is where T-rations come into play. The story that I was told at the time was that T-rations would go a long way to solving all those concerns because all it took to prepare them was a large pot of boiling water. In theory, this was supposed to removed the need for specially trained cooks as well as refrigeration because T-ration trays could be stored at normal temperatures like regular canned goods.
It was all a nice idea, but the only real way T-rations excelled were in their utter blandness. Unlike the first generation MRE's, which are memorable because of how bad many of the meals were, I don't remember any of the T-ration entrees. I do have vague recollections of dreaming about pizza and hamburgers as I stood in line to receive my serving of whatever came from those large aluminum trays. While I never personally read anything for certain, I do not believe T-rations lived up to their theoretical potential. For the rest of my active duty time, they seemed to slowly faded away while MRE's continued to evolve and improve.
We did receive a real, fully prepared meal during those weeks bivouacked in that field. One of the pieces of equipment drawn from the depot in Amsterdam was a mobile field kitchen whose proper military moniker escapes me at this moment. If memory serves me right, I believe breakfast was the one meal that we could depend on to carry us through the day. Of course, once all the forces arrived in theater and the actual war games began even that one bright light of our existence ended. Luckily, the war games last just a week, after that things got much better.
The thing about REFORGER exercises was that once you've brought all those troops and equipment across the ocean you eventually have to send everyone and thing back home. That takes time, so once the war games were over everyone was pulled back to rear assembly areas to do maintenance on equipment and wait for their turn to board a plane back to the States. These areas were on even bigger empty fields and consisted of giant circus tents that acted as barracks, mess halls, and even recreation centers made up of restaurants, movie theaters, arcades, and just about anything else designed to help the morale of the troops.
Yes, I know REFORGER exercises were not combat and that the five or six weeks my unit, me, and all the others were in the field was akin to a trip to Disney World compared to the hell our guys and gals endured in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But that is the fault of circumstance and the relatively wiser geopolitical leadership of that era, all I can say is that after weeks of either MRE's or T-rations I was ready for anything that approached normal food.
After going through the procedures of finding the area where my unit was supposed to park and then securing our vehicles, we were released and allowed to explore the circus tent where all the recreational stuff was housed. My unit was in no way one of the first troops brought to the rear assembly area, in fact the place was rather crowded, so much that my friends and I all wondered if some of the soldiers came over to Europe just to spend time at that particular spot. Whatever the case, my group of about four or five split up to hit the various food stalls with me picking the one that sold huge slices of New York-style pizza.
Part of the reasoning of my choice had to with the fact that for the last couple of days of the war games the MRE's I had drawn for lunch at our T-ration breakfast were the really bad ones. While dehydrated beef patty and Chicken a la King were the champions of gross, dehydrated pork patty and beef stew were only the tiniest bit better, but not enough to really make a difference. Except for a couple of bites of the entree, I had essentially skipped lunch those days and was pretty hungry. The second reason for going for the pizza was that the line in front of the stand wasn't as long as other places. Given my hunger the equation was pretty simple, so about fifteen minutes later I find my way back to the table my buddies and I claimed and sit down with the most beautiful piece of double cheese pizza that existed in the entire universe. Throw in the large Coke that I had bought and I was as close to being a happy camper as anyone can reach in this life. That is when what would seem like a total disaster occurred.
With my elbows resting on the table I lifted that gorgeous and quite hot slice of pizza up from the paper plate. At the exact same time my buddies got back with their own food and jostled the table. Hand/eye coordination never being one of my strengths, this caused me to bite more of the slice than I had planned burning the living shit out of my mouth, which lead me to dropping my food on the floor, cheese side down. You have to understand one important factor about the nature of these circus tents, yes they had plywood floors but because of the traffic of literally a few thousands soldiers fresh out of the field there was plenty of dirty and small pieces of vegetation everywhere. Given how my slice of pizza had fallen, that now included such detritus mixed in the cheese.
A smarter man might have tossed the now contaminated slice and bought another. At first I am sure my buddies expected me to do just that, but I just picked out the larger pieces trash and commenced to devour the now contaminated slice. My buddies snickered a little at first as I tore the pizza slice apart, but then shrugged and forgot about the the whole thing.
My wife and were driving home after completely our dinner and I could tell she was in a pensive mood. “What's bothering you?” I asked knowing after years of marriage how problematic such a question could become.
“I can't believe you ate that bit of food that had fallen off you fork. Do you have any idea how dirty that seat might have been?”
The question was of course rhetorical, but sometimes the universe supplies a way to answer such queries. As chance would have it, as I considered a possible response I spotted a french fry stuck between my seat and the center console. A relic of some quick drive-thru adventure I carefully picked up the fry and held it to my nose in a dramatic gesture. Not yet fully fossilized, I causally tossed it in my mouth and swallowed before answering.
“Yeah, I understand how dirty the seat might have been, but like I said earlier, I'm not worried about it.”