September 3, 2005

A Piping Hot Meal, the Military Way

We continue to pour in additional supplies every hour in this area. Massive quantities of water, ice and food, 5.6 million MRE’s, over 13 million liters of water. We have 2,800 National Guard in New Orleans as we speak today. 1,400 additional National Guard military police trained soldiers will be arriving every day.

Michael Chertoff
Secretary, Homeland Security
Speaking to CNN

My neighbor, Mike Lee, came over this evening to show me something he had picked up at our local surplus store: an MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat). These are food packs used by our armed forces in Iraq. And they are now being distributed to our citizens in New Orleans. He thought it might be an interesting lesson for our young girls. But it was an eye-opening experience for us adults.

Meal Ready-to-Eat

Meal Ready-to-Eat Heater Packet. Click photo to view/download a life-size version of these instructions (Adobe Acrobat PDF, 16 MB). Can you figure it out?

We opened the package to see what it contained. We found boxes marked “BARBECUE SAUCE WITH BEEF,” “BEEFSTEAK, CHOPPED AND FORMED, GRILLED WITH MUSHROOM GRAVY,” “CRACKERS,” and “CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE” (plus assorted condiments like sugar, salt, and pepper). Each MRE contains 1200-1300 calories (soldiers need a lot of energy). A special MRE Heater packet was included to warm the food.

We looked at the heater instructions to see if we could figure them out. I am mechanically challenged. More specifically, I have problems understanding written directions. A few years ago I had trouble assembling my new lawn mower, only to discover the instructions were actually wrong! I suffer from this problem not so much because my brain is miswired but more because the instructions are often unintelligibly written. Could someone, possibly be in shock, certainly hungry and thirsty, and definitely exhausted, be able to follow these directions?

It starts out with dire warnings on what not to do with the heater. The print is so small I could hardly read it, even with my glasses. Consider that many elderly might have lost their bifocals in the rush to get out of their flooding homes.

More importantly, what they’re asking you to do (essentially fill the heater pouch with about an inch of water, which activates the heating element inside) is simply not part of our everyday experience. Soldiers have been schooled on how to use these things. Flood victims under stress have not.

We had to read the directions very closely. And only after about 10 minutes did the three adults agree on how to use it. We also agreed that most, by that time, would have given up, torn open the crackers and cookies and chowed those down, forgetting the more nutritional parts of the meal.

Meal Ready-to-Eat

I like collect quirky informational graphics so I had to laugh when I saw the final instructional pictograph. After you begin the meal heating process you should place the package on an incline using a “rock or something.” The military sure has a way with words.

I hope Secretary Chertoff will detail some of those thousands of National Guard with extensive MRE heater experience to help explain these directions to the thousands of hungry and exhausted people waiting to eat.

Related Story: Living on a First World Edge

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If you are hungry enough you would eat it cold. I remember that on a long bike trip I once took I discovered that Campbell’s chunky chicken soup tasted okay cold. Perhaps you could get more funding for your experiment and try eating the MRE cold.

Posted by: Ralph Bunker on September 4, 2005 7:59 AM

Did you all taste it? How was it?

Posted by: Donna on September 5, 2005 2:55 AM

This reminds me of a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The narrator is describing how he once put together a bicycle (or something similar) and was very frustrated with the directions. Then he read them closely and saw that they started with something like “to assemble Japanese bicycle requires great peace of mind”. So he just relaxed and took his time, and things came together. I love that part of the book.

I think MREs are designed for field use by personnel who have been trained in their use. That might explain why the instructions are confusing: people who use them already know how.

My wife’s office has an annual white elephant gift exchange at Christmas. There are many ongoing jokes at that event; it’s one of the highlights of the year. (For example, there has been a jar of pogs that’s been in the gift exchange for years.) For several years, there were a pair of MREs that went around. One year, though, Kris took them. So that they would never ever be re-introduced to the gift exchange, she mailed them to her father for his birthday. (He’s retired military.)

And there you have it: several random bits from a new reader. :)

Posted by: J.D. on September 6, 2005 10:26 AM

Even the Army doesn’t often get instruction on how to prepare an MRE. Soldiers are gathered up in big groups and try to listen to one person yell at them on how to do it. If they couldn’t hear the instructions they read the bag, or (most often) ask the guy next to them what to do. Most military education is viral.

And clear, simple written instructions are common in the Army. Case in point, the Claymore mine has written on one side “Front - Toward Enemy.”

Posted by: AMH on September 7, 2005 7:53 AM

Donna, no, we didn’t taste it. We were a bit intimidated and a little afraid to activate the heater.

I received a comment from someone who used these MRE heaters when he was in the army. He said the heater only heats the bottom part of the food package.

J.D., I would agree: when confronted with incomprehensible directions it is best to relax and take a deep breath. However, it might be hard for Katrina survivors to have that luxury.

Posted by: Jeff on September 7, 2005 9:00 AM

Posted on CNN was this photo and caption:

As recovery efforts continue along the Gulf Coast, Alabama National Guardsman Spc. Jonathan Hall, with the 214th Military Police Company, shows Hurricane Katrina survivor Sa Nguyen how to eat meals-ready-to-eat on September 7 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

Nguyen owned a convenience store in the area but lost everything in the storm.

Posted by: Jeff on September 10, 2005 7:52 AM

MRE’s are good. I took a few bagloads of them and went camping for weeks. The stuff was delicious when all other rations were depleted.

The fact that most Americans lack the know how to use an MRE, or even the most basic survival knowledge, really bewilders me. Here’s a message to all you Americans out there: the end is coming—not today, not tomorrow, not anytime soon, but SOON.

The day will come when you cannot go to the grocery store because there is a line miles long waiting for the next truck of food to arrive because “it could never happen to us”—armed gunmen, previously law enforcement in many cases, will attack your homestead in search of food, valuables, a new CP (command post), or merely to cut down on variables that your existance creates.

My point is, boys and girls, be ready for the big one, because from my studies of history, it is going to come, and when it does no one ever expects it. SOOOOOO learn how to use MRE’s, stockpile water, NOT bottled water but like the 3 liter bottles of coke you were going to trash, Fill them with drinking water and throw them in a closet along with 30 days worth of MRE’s and matches and anything and everything you would need to live a siege from civilization.

Posted by: Brian David on October 5, 2005 2:17 PM

Comments are now closed for this post. But there are a few other entries which might provoke an opinion or two.

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