Soldier On: Gluten-Free Challenges in Another World
Making It Work
Andrasik arrived in Afghanistan after multiple stopovers, including ones in Ireland and Asia, just in time for the midnight meal. (Some chow halls serve a midnight meal in addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner.) Tub after tub in the assembly line of food—meals were cafeteria style—was either breaded or covered in sauce. Andrasik tried to talk to the staff (and later, when he wasn’t rushed, to the kitchen manager), but there was little understanding of gluten and all the food packages were written in Arabic. That first night, he settled for an orange and a salad.
Breakfast was better. In fact, breakfast was consistently the easiest gluten-free meal of the day for Andrasik. He’d load up on hard-boiled eggs, milk and fresh fruit—apples, oranges, grapes, watermelon and kiwi were all remarkably plentiful.
Most of the meat continued to be fried or swimming in gravy. After his misstep with the turkey, Andrasik decided to forgo all meat and follow a vegetarian diet during his deployment. The strategy worked fairly well—when the Army serves green beans or corn or rice, it is what it says it is (i.e., plain). Cross contamination is typically minimal—the bread tong never mixes with the corn tong, for example.
Andrasik was making it work well enough until the Pakistani border temporarily closed and shipments of fresh fruit and vegetables were stymied. Although some service members barely noted the disruption, Andrasik was forced to rely almost exclusively on his own stash of gluten-free food. Replenishing his fast-dwindling supply wasn’t easy, however. About a third of what he ordered (via the Internet) never arrived or showed up weeks late, speckled with mold.
Still, Andrasik considered himself lucky. He had regular Internet access for ordering gluten-free food and he had space to store it. He also had seniority. Now captain, he wasn’t as likely to be harassed about his special diet.
“The military can be a brutal environment if you have any perceived ‘weakness,’” he says.
Although Andrasik was mostly left alone about his diet, there was one unfortunate incident when a higher ranking officer found his stash of gluten-free food, including pizza crusts he was planning to use for an upcoming support group meeting, and threw all of it into the dumpster.
“It was a lot of food,” recalls Andrasik, still fuming over the prank. “I doubt he knew what gluten-free was or how important the food was to me—but I don’t think it would’ve mattered.”
Andrasik rummaged through the dumpster but there was no salvaging anything.
“With the temperature over 100 degrees, the flies were swarming everywhere,” he says.
Next: A Gluten-Free Option