Apparently, the previous post on MREs was wildly popular. And while just about everyone who knows someone in the service has heard a horror story or two, they ain’t that bad. Nor is it the only game in town when it comes to eating.
Like every other bureaucracy in the world, the Army has a program for everything, including food. The Army calls this AFFS, or the Army Field Feeding System. They actually put a lot of time, money and effort into getting food out to the field. Think about it. Some young soldier in the middle of some Godforsaken village in Afghanistan is going to eat, and chances are it’s going to be a meal made right here in the US of A.
Traditionally, meals for troops in the field have been in three categories: A, B, and C:
A-Rations are meals made from items available locally and are cooked in army kitchens just like you would make (if you were serving 800 people). They use perishable items like meat, produce and dairy products. This means the kitchens have to have refrigeration and that the soldiers usually have to come to the kitchen (the old mess hall is now called the Dining Facility or DFAC). A-Rations can be sent to troops out in the field by using insulated food containers called Mermite cans, but this is difficult and the food is often cold when it gets there.
B-Rations are still prepared in a kitchen for groups, but are made from canned items. Since they are non-perishable, a less elaborate kitchen setup is required. Often, where A-Rations are made up to feed a Brigade or Battalion, a kitchen for B-Rats can be set up at the company level. This makes transporting the meal to the soldiers (or the soldiers to the meal) a much shorter trip. This means you get more hot meals. B-Rations are often called T-rations now, but the concept is the same.
C-Rations are individual rations that require no preparation to eat. MREs fall into this class. When Vietnam veterans talk about eating C-Rats, they were really eating cans of MCI, or Meal, Combat, Individual.
The names of the actual rations and meals have changed, but to this day they still fall into these general categories. We pretty well covered the MRE in our previous post. Let’s take a quick look at the other options. In the old days (any day before I joined the Army is the old days, right up there with horse-drawn artillery) a B-Ration might be something like giant cans of ravioli. A side dish might be canned green beans. The cooks would heat these up, dump the contents in Mermites, send along coffee, bread, a salad (if they could), milk, and some sort of desert. Not a bad meal. It was no home cooking, but it beat the ham and chicken loaf MRE. Still there were drawbacks. The meals were often cold when they got to the field, it took a lot of time or a lot of cooks to make the meals, and cleaning the Mermite cans was a major chore. There had to be a better way. And there was. Someone came up with the bright idea of Tray-Packs. The food was still canned food, but the can was shaped like half a steam table tray.
Simply by putting the traypacks in hot water, you could safely and easily heat the meal. The shape of the tray made it a lot easier to pack items like sausages, eggs (yes, eggs) cake (pound cake rocks!), and sliced pork loin in gravy. Serving is a lot easier as well. Putting the trays in a special insulated container kept them warm for long periods of time. Serving was easy too. It was just like eating from a cafeteria or buffet line. Items like bread, milk, and salad would be sent along as well. My unit in Hawaii was one of the first to use the traypacks and while it wasn’t Mom’s home cooking, it beat another look at MREs. Of course, there were kinks to work out. The first trays didn’t have the contents marked on them, so there were occasions when someone got lots of cut green beans, someone got three trays of rice, and someone else found themselves awash in sliced pork. That shortcoming was overcome eventually, but not before I had a breakfast that consisted of blueberries. Apparently, the pound cake made its way over to the other platoon. I hated blueberries then, and that did nothing to improve my opinion of them. In the late 90’s, as the Army began spending a lot more time deployed in places like the Balkans and the Middle East, the traypacks were used in a ration called the UGR, or Unitized Group Ration. Basically, instead of the cooks ordering traypacks and then ordering all the other stuff to make a meal, they just ordered however many UGRs they needed. Everything from the main dish to the plates, napkins and even trash bags came in the box.
The same concept was applied to the A-Ration. Let’s face it. You aren’t going to find a lot of steak or chicken in Iraq to feed 100,000 of your closest friends with. Most of the items in a meal are shelf stable. But some things need to be frozen. In the UGR-A, the Army packs together a meal with frozen items and expedites the shipping to the unit in the field so they can have a decent meal from time to time.
Typically, there’s a cycle, based on what is available, and what the unit will be doing. The operations order that tells you what your unit is doing usually contains a mention of the ration cycle and sounds some thing like this- Rations will be A-C-T for today and T-C-A tomorrow.” Your chances of having A-Rations three times a day are pretty poor. On the other hand, your chances of having MREs three times a day are slimmer than they once were.