When the war in Afghanistan first got underway, international troops gathering at Bagram AFB had their own unique currency, trading combat rations with each other. One French ration, containing delicacies such as cassoulet with deer pate, was worth a whopping 5 United States rations, known as Meals Ready to Eat or MREs.
However, recently barter values reflect a change.
Now, international troops have told journalists that they look forward to joining the Americans for a meal. They say that the American rations, usually fare such as chili or hamburgers with candy and peanut butter, are more fun.
With the numbers of troops in the field remaining high, millions of dollars are devoted to studying how to pack the most nutrition, comfort, and treats into small, portable, lightweight packages. The meals and extra treats included are meant to not only feed the body of soldiers but give them comfort and a reminder of home. Some countries include a beloved brand, such as Australians with their Vegemite, while others prefer traditional foods from homes such as Germans and their liverwurst or popular fare like the lamb curry that is a hit in the UK.
Also included are practical items. Italian rations include 3 disposable toothbrushes for each day in combat. The Americans are treated to pound cake. Military lore often mentions pound cake as instrumental in reducing the need for frequent toilet breaks.
Other items are included just for fun. For several years journalists traveling with the troops, primarily Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan, have been told about Assorted Charms – one of the types of candies included in MREs.
The troops believe Charms to be unlucky, and frequently warn others not to eat them. No soldier has been able to say exactly why, other than superstition, but the rule is taken quite seriously. If I ever get lost, I know all I have to do is follow the trail of unopened Charms that have been discarded and I'll soon be back with the troops.
Peanut M&Ms seem to be the current favorite treat, knocking out the previous fav, Skittles. In fact, M&Ms are a form of currency on their own. Are you looking to get out of a late night guard duty? A packet of these sweet treats might just convince someone to help you out.
Soldiers also enjoy creating their own recipes using components from other meals. As far back as Vietnam, the Army Rangers have passed down the recipe for Ranger Pudding. Simply mix water, instant coffee, cocoa powder, melted chocolate, a tootsie roll, coffee, and sugar.
Combat Espresso is not quite as tasty, but very effective. For this "treat" instant coffee, sugar, and creamer are combined together – in the soldier's mouth. The concoction is then washed down by a gulp of water.
During times of combat, meal time may be the one thing to look forward to at the end of a hard day. When sitting down to heat up their MRE, a soldier isn't in immediate danger, no friends are being lost, and he is not having to dodge bullets. It has become a sort of ritual, since opening the package gives a sense of safety, even if only for a few minutes.
For many troops in active combat, sitting down to a meal is the only positive moment they can look forward towards.