By James BrabenecAugust 16, 2018
FORT SILL, Okla., Aug. 16, 2018 -- (Editor's note: This is the second in a series about diet and Soldier performance.) "I feel like nothing can stop me, because I feel great inside. I can do all things. If one door closes, I have the mental toughness to stand up and open another door."
Capt. Jean Tomte shared that perspective and attributed his self-improvement and happiness, in part, to adopting a plant based diet. The sleek, 173-pound, 42-year-old commander of D Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery challenged younger competitors for the privilege of representing Fort Sill at the Army 10-Miler race this fall. With only two years running experience, he completed the 10-mile qualification race in 73 minutes, and while he failed to gain a berth on the Sill squad, he will try again next year.
Tomte's life began in Cameroon, in where he said most people take pride in their home-cooked meals. He said his diet included yams, potatoes, vegetables, and fewer servings of meat, which basically mirrors what he eats today except for the meat. Seeing a future that didn't line up with his goals, he left the Central African nation at age 20 to study agriculture in Germany in the 1990s. With a dream to serve in the U.S. Army, he applied for and received his green card to immigrate to the United States.
"1997 marked a new beginning on American soil. Despite all the adversities, I encountered being only 20 years old, my quest for the American dream did not fade away," said Tomte.
He enlisted in the Army in 2000 as a finance specialist and pursued a college education. Eleven years later he completed Officer Candidate School and received a commission. More recently, he completed a master's degree, which contributes to his sense of resilience and adaptability.
"Being the first generation coming to America, I had to pay back this nation for giving me a chance not only to dream, but most importantly, to dream bigger than myself," he said. "Joining the Army was a way for me to pay back, inspire people, and lay a strong foundation for my progeny."
Even as his dreams and ambitions laid a foundation for opportunity, a new threat emerged in the form of fast food and calorie-abundant treats.
"Obviously, at first, it was a culture shock (eating American food) but, as years went by, I acquainted myself with the American way of life," said Tomte.
This included grabbing something convenient instead of cooking at home. Often, these meal stops focused on chicken, pizza, burgers, and fried food.
"My attachment to fast food and big portions nurtured an addiction as food became a sort of opium that destroyed me," said the captain.
As his weight edged above 220 pounds, the 6-foot-tall captain said the extra weight led to joint pain, surgery to repair an injured knee, and breathing difficulties. Alarmed by his degrading health, he decided it was time to make a change.
Still, revitalization didn't occur immediately. In fact, Tomte said he worked through a period he called turbulence.
"It often happens when I am confronted with others. Alone with myself, I never regret my choice. However, the turbulence is at its worst when I am around people eating cheese, or sugar-laden pastries. I must admit I am often tempted to do like them. The difference I saw from not eating animal-based products would not let me compromise my health for my palate. As the saying goes, 'What is good for one's body is not always tasty,'" he said. "It is becoming clear, thanks to more and more medical studies, that consuming animal products is not the best for my health."
Tomte believes his new diet helps him meet the demands and long hours of commanding a basic combat training battery. His days begin at 3 a.m. with a run of at least seven miles. He then heads to unit physical readiness training and runs an additional three miles.
On to work, his office is small, but decorated in a manner that attests to his go-getter nature. A white board lists 20-30 goals or events; medals and ribbons remind of his runner rewards, and his patrol hat rests on a lounge chair. Like a symphony conductor, he stands behind two computer monitors directing his day's duties without an office chair to slump into in case his stress level increases.
Off duty, the captain said he gets greater satisfaction spending time with his family as they cook and try new recipes together.
"As a vegan, cooking is more enjoyable, actually I reconnected with my roots of using more spices on my food. Also, I don't crave food like I used to, I consume what my body needs, and that's it," he said.
Tomte spoke of habits and how most may start difficult but grow easier with practice.
"Society programs us to eat and live in such a way, and in the beginning, it is complicated to do differently," he said. "Then, like everything, we find new benchmarks, and it becomes natural."