Soldier On: Gluten-Free Challenges in Another World
Birth of a Gluten-Free Soldier
Andrasik joined the Maryland Army National Guard in January 2001 when he was 19 years old. Before enlisting, he talked to other service members about what they ate (he was assured, lots of plain rice) and met with a dietitian, as well as civilian and Army doctors. None seem alarmed by his dietary needs. Most just shrugged their shoulders, he recalls, although in hindsight he points out knowledge of the rigors of the gluten-free diet wasn’t as widespread as it is today.
Andrasik began the diet in his early teens after his mother was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder set off by the ingestion of gluten. Classic symptoms include diarrhea, bloating and abdominal discomfort. Although Andrasik himself had experienced celiac-like symptoms, the diet was largely forced upon him by his mother, who purged the household of gluten following her long-overdue diagnosis. By the time he enlisted, he felt better and more fit than ever—and was fully committed to the diet.
As he’d hoped, Andrasik found avoiding gluten to be doable, apart from his six-week stint in basic training, otherwise known as boot camp. There, he “laid low and kept quiet,” doing his best to seek out plain rice, salad and other foods that looked safe. Of course, the strategy wasn’t foolproof and Andrasik paid the price more than once. However, he survived and returned to Maryland to an easier pace of life, drilling on the weekends as a combat engineer with the 121st Engineer Battalion.
Although it wasn’t easy or without mishaps, Andrasik learned to ask questions, locate naturally gluten-free foods as they were offered and tote along enough gluten-free food to fill in the gaps. Things were going well enough that, a few years later, he completed the Reserve Officers Training Corps and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
When he learned he’d be deploying to Afghanistan, he’d been in the service ten years and spent considerable time on U.S. bases, including Air Force and Navy posts.
“I was relatively confident I could manage,” he says. Still, he tried to learn as much as he could to prepare for deployment, even arranging a meeting with the chief of nutrition service at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center in Ft. Hood, Texas. At their meeting, it was made clear: deployment was going to be the ultimate gluten-free challenge. Food in the dining facilities on KAF would be a combination of food shipped from the United States, as well as food purchased from nearby countries, like Pakistan. In either case, little information about gluten or potential cross contamination would be readily available. The Army focused on the health and sanitation of its food but gluten was not tracked by anyone.