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I Think the MREs Were Really Killing Us

by Joseph Miller

In a sudden, staggering second I heard an explosion. It seemed like my company outpost was finally being mortared effectively, but I only heard soldiers laughing instead of diving for cover. I walked out of a meeting with my company commander, looked over a trash heap at my driver, Daniel Shadowens, and couldn’t help myself from laughing. What happened wasn’t really funny, but a lifetime of cartoon bombs only throwing soot on Wiley Coyote made laughing an involuntary act when a radio battery caused similar situation for Daniel. He, on the other hand, was stunned, and looked at the group of soldiers laughing at him and memorably asked us all if he had died. The Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks made events like this uniquely comical, because in microseconds all the observers transitioned from believing we were being bombed by mortars to seeing a scene similar to a kids’ cartoon. As Daniel’s platoon leader, my lead sergeant immediately chastised me and the other non-commissioned officer laughing at Daniel. His criticism was appropriate, and the day once served as a critical leadership lesson for a young platoon leader.

But now it reminds me of why many of us are struggling with respiratory issues, and the way the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ approach to identifying source of those problems seems woefully inadequate.

Questions from this anecdote may arise which make our conduct seem stupid: Just why in the hell were we burning radio batteries? Why not remove or recycle them? What else were we burning? Why wouldn’t trash fires be placed somewhere else? The answer to these questions couldn’t be simpler. Practicing successful tactics meant living in our areas of operation, and because of IEDs, no commander would have risked the lives of soldiers to transport trash to a proper waste disposal facility. I, like many soldiers, now suffer from respiratory illnesses like asthma.  However, when I attempted to record my exposures, the small company-sized outposts aren’t listed in VA studies. Instead they emphasize the larger bases that can be tested for air quality. It felt like another example of soldiers in Forward Operating Bases getting better treatment while we in the infantry took all the risks.

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Photo by Joseph Linhart

And we lived and worked in filth. The smaller outposts were all forced by necessity to burn every piece of trash —from  radio batteries to soldiers’ excrement.  In the middle of the cities themselves, waste flowed through the streets.

Another momentary comedy took place during my last mission as a platoon leader. We were on an IED screening mission, and there was a square shaped object in the middle of a sewage puddle. I was almost certain it was nothing because of its location in a safe area, but it resembled a shape commonly used to hide remote antennae, so I did not want to risk a unit new to the area on a potential threat. It was just a cigarette package covered in muddy waste, and I had managed to discover that with the least amount of exposure to my boots – that is, until I slipped and got the terrible sludge all the way up to me knees. My feet were red, inflamed, and sore for six months following that day.

The worst environmental causes of sickness were not on the bases. They were on the missions and in the smaller outposts. VA studies are only scratching the surface on environmental exposures that are grossly affecting the lives of veterans.

Personally, I think the chemicals that are in most of our lungs following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are none other than the packaging and heating pads of the infamous Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). The metallic packaging was almost universally burned in the small urban outposts. However, the heating packages, which aren’t supposed be used indoors or inside vehicles, are probably the biggest source.

If I were the VA, I would halt this massive study of air quality throughout Iraq and simply burn the contents of an MRE in a controlled environment. I bet you will find those materials in our lungs.

They don’t have to be. Technology is not universally better, and using the sternos and small pieces of plastic explosives used by earlier generations to heat canned food may be a better policy. Maybe we could use the type of packaging advocated by environmentally conscious outdoor food companies. Other alternatives include buying products from the region that wouldn’t require as much packaging or placing the mobile field kitchens at the company level in the military table of organization. Maybe these steps would actually save money – and lungs – in the long run.

We all used to joke that eating MREs everyday had to be killing us. We might have been right.