CPT B. Donald Andrasik’s mission when writing his memoir Gluten Free in Afghanistan was to promote acceptance and increase options for our gluten free service members. Maintaining a gluten free (GF) diet is difficult for anybody. The extra cost and vigilance required to maintain a gluten free diet far exceeds the relative ease most people have when choosing a meal. These challenges are amplified when food options become fewer, and resources are scarce. A challenge many of our service members face on a daily basis.
From CPT B. Donald Andrasik:
While overseas in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I realized that my struggles to adhere to a GF diet were in no way unique. Instead, I discovered there were plenty of GF service members around me quietly suffering, or more appropriately, quietly persevering. These brave men and women knew the military would not be catering to their dietary needs and took on the challenge to go to war with the added anxiety of being uncertain about what to eat.
Roughly mid-way through my tour I had the good fortune to find and meet over a dozen other celiac or gluten intolerant soldiers on Kandahar Airfield. We sat down over some GF snacks and swapped war stories about our travels and experiences while being overseas. As I listened attentively to these younger soldiers and airmen I could hear the anxiety about their ability to eat GF. Most of them had hid their affliction from the military, and the ones that did not seemed too weary of a discharge to make an issue out of their need for GF food. I would explain that the Army (I am uncertain about the Air Force, Navy or Marines) did not have any regulatory discharge for celiac disease and that they should be pressing for a GF alternative. They all agreed, up until the point I asked them to sign a petition; at which point they declined (I should note that the Army may discharge soldiers under more generic conditions such as absorption /digestive disorders) The meeting ended, they all loaded up their gear, and went back to their respective units to silently endure. If no one complains then the military can easily determine it does not need to change.
While a few of us may make waves from time to time it may very well take an act of congress before a GF- MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) or GF foods are a viable option for service members. Since my memoir, Gluten Free in Afghanistan, was published, many service members have contacted me to share their experiences. Only one has said she was discharged due to celiac disease, most are still serving after being diagnosed by the Army. Many of them reported similar experiences to my own; which is being sent to a Medical Evaluation Board (MEB), being asked if we could figure out what to eat at the dining facility, and (after answering yes) being sent on our way to rejoin the ranks. In this light, being able to serve is certainly a possibility and one that has been done many times; but, if you are considering military service or know a celiac who is, understanding what you are getting into should be a far greater concern than if you can or cannot get into the service.
If you are not in the service, you may want to consider writing your Senators or Congressman to encourage including GF options for our brave men and women overseas (much in the same way the military offers both Kosher and Vegetarian alternatives). While I have returned from my tour and am once again comfortably eating GF, many of our service members will continue to serve abroad for years to come and could use a GF source of food. As for my year long deployment, I can assure you there was no easy meal.