Saturday, April 24, 2010

The ANZAC diet... lose 20kg in six months.

Me, 2002. Minus 20kg, plus hair.

It's ANZAC Day here in Australia tomorrow, April 25, the day we honour servicemen and women past and present who have served, and in particular those who died in the service of our country.

If you've read the blurb on the inside cover of one my books then you might notice a reference to me having been in Afghanistan way back in 2002 on an all-expenses-paid six-month tour courtesy of the Australian Army. I spent most of my war behind a desk, which was just fine by me, and while the SAS guys from the task force were out on operations the whole time, we were very fortunate in that no Australian soldiers were killed during my time there.

The biggest risk I faced in Afghanistan was the Amercian Army D-FAC, (that's dining facilitity in English). According to Napoleon an army marches on its stomach and all I can say is that the American Army is very fortunate in these days of high technology and rapid transport that it doesn't have to do much marching.

The American Army's food (and, I must add things have changed in Afghanistan considerably since 2002) was disgustingly inedible. It was early days in The War Against Terror (as we used to call it) and the kitchens at Bagram Air Base, where I was stationed, were pretty rudimentary.

No, rudimentary is too kind. The kitchens were non-existent. In fact, all our food was cooked (and I use the term loosely) in Germany, then frozen, placed in insulated boxes, and flown by C-17 transport aircraft to Afghanistan. The 'chefs' (and I use that term insultingly) in-country then had the tricky job of heating up the food and slopping it out.

The food hadn't so much been cooked in Germany - more like mass-produced. The Americans were big fans of something called chunking-and-forming. We had chunked and formed pork chops, chunked and formed steak, and chunked and formed ribs. Chunking and forming involves mashing up meat (no doubt all the best cuts, and no brains, spinal cords or offal), mixing it with some kind of bonding agent and then squeezing out the resultant goo into a mold in the shape of a chop, a steak or a rack of ribs.

As well as being disgusting, this food was also cruel. I remember the first time I was served up ribs and it looked like they were, well, ribs. I could see what I thought were bones and I imagined gnawing away on them. Imagine my despair, then, when I went to cut off a piece of rib and sliced straight through the non existent bone.

Breakfast was powdered scrambled eggs and greasy bacon. The bacon, of course, had been cooked on another continent, frozen, transported, and re-heated. I think the Bagram cooks probably tipped some cold oily water on it after taking it out of the microwave just to give it that finishing touch.

We only had two hot meals a day back then, thank God, and lunch was a Meal-Ready to Eat per man. The MRE, also known as Meal-Rarely Edible and Meal-Rejected by Ethiopians, is the US Army's field ration pack.

In true American style it is bigger than our ration pack and contains lots of things that in conflicts past you could probably have swapped for sex with underfed members of the local population. There are brownies, crackers, tobasco sauce, M&Ms, jalapeno cheese sachets,Lucky Strike cigarettes and nylon stockings, as well as a piece of chunked and formed something. (I may have dreamed that bit about the Lucky Strikes and the stockings).

About the only thing I found edible from the MRE was the peanut butter and crackers.

As I couldn't face powdered eggs and slimy wet brown stuff for breakfast, and my body rejected anything that had been chunked and formed I was facing a bit of a dilemma. But Australia Post and the Australian Army and the small but perfectly formed (no chunking there) Mrs Blog all came to the rescue.

One very fine thing that the military in this country gets right is the free postal service for troops. Friends and relatives can send deployed personnel (which is what the military calls people) free post packages of up to 2kg. So Mrs Blog got busy putting together food parcels for me.

Pretty soon I was eating Weetbix for breakfast, peanut butter and crackers for lunch (I actually liked the gooey American peanut butter), and various cook-in-the-bowl instant Asian noodles for dinner. I was in seventh heaven and, with my supply of Caramello Koalas and mini Mars Bars, suddenly a popular man in the task force.

The American Army at the time had a rule against the consumption of fresh fruit (as well as alcohol and pornography, so all in all it was a very unhealthy environment for young men and women to be in) so I had Mrs Blog send me dried fruit.

By the time my first consignment of dried pears arrived I probably hadn't eaten anything in the ruffage family for about a month. I don't even like pears (though I didn't tell her this as I was so grateful to be eating something dried rather than formed) but I found myself salivating as I opened the packet. That night, as I did my duty as a watchkeeper in the headquarters tent, I consumed the entire packet.

I knocked off about 2am and went to sleep. At about 2.45 am I awoke feeling like my stomach was about to explode out of my skin, Alien-style. I thought I was dying as I rushed from my stretcher and out into the night in search of the nearest Porta-loo.

It wasn't all quite as bad as I make out. Our own little task force did have its own cooks and they were able to source fresh rations (actual meat, vegetables, fruit etc) on a limited basis from the British Army's supply chain. Our cooks delivered a slap up meal when the SAS squadron was sending patrols out, or if guys had just come in from the field. On those occasions we desk dwellers across the road in the headquarters would be invited for dinner or lunch.

I will never, ever say a bad word about Australian Army cooks. Call them fitters and turners or tucker f-ckers if you will, but I don't think we could have survived without them in Afghanistan.

But I did survive, and thanks to my diet of Weetbix, peanut butter and crackers, and instant noodles, and a complete lack of alcohol, I lost 20 kilograms in six months.

I put all that weight back on when I got home, as I had a lot of drinking and proper eating to do to make up for six months.

When consuming a drop of one of my favourite brews the other day I noticed on the carton that VB (Victoria Bitter - good Aussie beer) is running a 'raise-a-glass' appeal to raise money for Legacy, an organisation which cares for the widows and children of fallen servicemen.

I immediately thought, of course, that this was a cynnical marketing stunt but when I looked at the website I found it was full of poignant stories of fallen soldiers and tributes to them by family and friends. I'm not a crier (never have been), but I must confess a bit of a lump did come to my throat, and I needed raise a glass to wash it away.

Reading the stories and seeing the videos of widows and family members also reminded me just how proud I was of the way Mrs Blog soldiered on while I was away. I was in an interesting (if dusty and not very nice) place surrounded by some of the best blokes I've ever worked with in my life, but she came home to an empty flat every night after work.

I'll be raising a glass tomorrow, especially to those serving overseas now; to their families who wait at home for them; and to their mates who didn't make it back.

Me, c.2009. Plus 20kg and minus hair. Raise a glass with me.


ali g said...

Nice pictures Major.
20 kilos more is good as extra padding against land mines they say.
follicly challenged of course just means you cant grow grass on a busy street. so no problems. beers on tomorrow. shall wear my old regiment cap and line the cats up on parade for inspection by her Ladyship.

Crookedpaw said...

And in the turmoil and bedlam that comes down, know thee always that peace lies in wait at home.

Trev said...

Hold the line steady chaps..

Flea said...

Lets we forget .... cheers!

ShamrockSafari said...

Well said Sir!
Very timely as I've just come back from a week of learning to dig a hole and survive of rat-pack and am just about to head out again next week to be assessed in hole digging and rat pack eating.

Naturally, it is an Air Force style even comes with corrugated tin to hold the soil back, but little room for the golf clubs.

ShamrockSafari said...

To follow on from above, I know what it's like for Mrs Blog, as I'm the one who comes home to the empty house each night while he is out playing in the trenches...

- J