HOPKINTON, Mass. (Jan. 28, 2013) -- Veterans from the small town of Hopkinton recently got a taste of new military rations technology at their monthly veterans breakfast, courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's Combat Feeding Directorate.
The breakfast, held at the Hopkinton Senior Center, began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a short blessing of the meal led by members of the local American Legion McDonough-Carlberg Post 202. Over three dozen veterans and several spouses participated in the event, made possible with funds donated by the Hopkinton Lions Club.
Following their traditional eggs, hash, home fries and biscuits, the veterans listened to an update of military ration technology from the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate's Patti Cariveau and Bob Bernazzani, who not only provided information on current military rations but also brought in some vintage rations to remind the veterans how far the technology has come in recent years.
Many veterans instantly recognized the World War II-era K Rations and the Korean War and Viet Nam War-era C Rations. Many reminisced about the unpopularity of the canned rations and the drudgery of eating the same food day after day while serving in combat zones overseas.
Samples of the new rations were passed around the room as veterans were invited to try new items and learned that no item is included in a combat ration without first being tested and approved by the consumers -- U.S. troops. While there were traditionally only about 12 different meals available to troops in World War II, Korea, Viet Nam and Desert Storm, there are now 24 different MREs including four vegetarian entrees.
Cariveau and Bernazzani next focused on the work done at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, known to many local residents as 'Natick Labs.' Current rations developed at NSRDEC include the newest generation of Meals, Ready to Eat, commonly known as MREs, and the First Strike Ration. Cariveau explained that the First Strike Ration, used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, was an instant hit when it was introduced several years ago.
"Soldiers and Marines going on long patrols would need to take more than one MRE with them, but that meant food that took up space in their rucksacks and increased the weight they were carrying. We discovered that they were 'field stripping' their rations, taking apart the packaging and only taking part of the meal with them," Cariveau explained.
"This led to troops not getting all the nutrition they needed on missions so Combat Feeding's packaging and food technology experts decided to create a new ration, the First Strike Ration, which included all the components of three MREs, but without the extra bulk and weight of the packaging. And at the same time using meal items that were easier to eat while on the move and more acceptable to the troops," Cariveau said.
Another technology demonstrated was the flameless ration heater, included in all MREs, that uses a small amount of water to produce a chemical reaction to heat up the MRE food pouches. The technology has transitioned to other military and commercial products such as a container of water that can now be heated up to make hot chocolate or instant coffee. The flameless ration heater technology is also used in the Unitized Group Ration Express, which contains a complete meal for 18 troops and is heated by larger versions of the heater, explained Bernazzani.
Veterans commented favorably on the samples which included stuffed French toast, energy bars and different pocket sandwiches from the First Strike Ration.
"In the past, meals were routine, and now mealtime is something for the troops to look forward to," said Mike Whalen, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served from 1968-1971.
The veterans of Hopkinton know firsthand the about sacrifice and hardship. Many in the room were combat veterans and continued a unique tradition of military service in the small town. Hopkinton, with a current population of nearly 15,000 people, is home to eight surviving veterans of the ferocious World War II battle for the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific and nearly 20 surviving veterans of the fierce fighting during the invasion of the island of Okinawa as U.S. military forces fought closer and closer to the Japanese homeland.
Although the town has grown over the past 60 years, it is important to note that the 1940 U.S. Census found that there were less than 3,000 residents of the town.
"Hopkinton has had a strong tradition of military service for over two-hundred years and is notable as being the early childhood home of U.S. Army Brigadier General Frank Merrill, who commanded the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), a World War II long-range special operations combat force in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. The unit became famous for its deep-penetration missions behind Japanese lines, often engaging Japanese forces superior in number and was nicknamed 'Merrill's Marauders,'" explained Hank Allessio, a U.S. Army veteran, and one of the organizers of the breakfast.
Tony DeStefano, who served in the Marine Corps from 1941-46 and is one of the Battle of Okinawa veterans from Hopkinton, was impressed with the NSRDEC presentation and the food.
"The difference between then and now is like night and day. This food is a real banquet for the troops," DeStefano said.