Soldier On: Gluten-Free Challenges in Another World
One U.S. military man describes the challenges of dealing with a special diet in war-torn Afghanistan.
On March 24, 2012, five soldiers gathered in a dimly lit wooden shed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Dust poured through cracks in the plank walls, blanketing the gluten-free snacks laid out only moments earlier. The servicemen were there for the first-ever gluten-free support meeting in Afghanistan—“or so we suspected,” says Captain B. Donald Andrasik, the national guardsman who led the group.
The idea for such a gathering didn’t occur to Andrasik until he was nearing the end of a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. By accident, he stumbled upon a few boxes of gluten-free food and a toaster left behind by another gluten-free soldier, whom he was unable to track down despite his best efforts.
“I was dumbfounded,” he recalls. “In this most remote part of the world, someone else had dealt with the same struggles and food challenges that I had.” Soon he was wondering—were there others?
In 2012, Kandahar Airfield (KAF), as the base was known, was a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) post, home to an international contingency of some 30,000 soldiers. Andrasik attempted to post fliers about a gluten-free meet-up at dining facilities and other gathering spots. However, most were promptly taken down, even after securing permissions. He also purchased a website, glutenfreeinafghanistan.com, and asked people to e-mail him if they were gluten-free.
In a matter of days, he had located 12 gluten-free service members, of whom four made it to that first meeting in the dusty shed. Most agreed they were managing their diet reasonably well, considering the circumstances. However, they were on their own. No one had told their chain of command, or the Army, about their special diet. Worse yet, all of them accepted getting sick—glutened—as part of deployment lifestyle.
“Being gluten-free can be a dicey prospect for a soldier,” says Andrasik.
Early on in his deployment, he ate a meal that appeared safe—plain turkey, sliced cucumbers and rice—but within an hour, he was hit by the unmistakable abdominal discomfort of gluten ingestion. (There was wheat in a marinade on the turkey.) As it happened, the base was under rocket attack and Andrasik was forced to take shelter in a crowded, bathroom-less bunker. To leave the bunker meant risking his life—the thin plastic walls of the nearby portable toilets offered no protection from the incoming shrapnel, which can tear through cars at close enough range. It was a situation he swore never to find himself in again.