Since the WWII era K-Ration, the US Armed forced have always supplied their troops with meal-sized ration packs rather than full 24 hour ration packs.
The US combat rations underwent an overhaul during the Vietnam War era of the mid 1960s to the early 1970s with some specialised lightweight dried and compressed foods known as LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) Rations were provided to special forces and the like. At the same time, the basic US armed forces combat ration was the Meal, Combat, Individual, which many Aussie Vietnam Veterans will remember as C-Rations. The MCI soldiered on until the mid 1980s when it began to be replaced by a revolutionary ration known as an MRE or Meal, Ready to Eat.
The MRE was revolutionary because it did away with the canned food items of the Vietnam era MCI completely and replaced them with plastic and mylar pouches. Empty, the pouches – known as retort pouches to everyone else, but as slop-in-a-bag pouches to me – had very little bulk and as an added bonus they burnt completely down to a tiny bit of foil residue which could be balled up to the size of a piece of chewing gum. A far cry from cans which had to be opened at both ends and flattened before they could be easily carried out of the field.
Aside from that, the MRE’s retort pouch format meant that unusual foods such as whole frankfurts without juice could be packed into retort pouches and troops in the field could literally enjoy a hot dog. The earlier MRE menus were a bit dire, but as the technology became perfected, more attention was paid to the acceptability of the food items themselves. Today you see such crowd-pleasers as beef taco main meals, plus cornbread, tortillas, pretzels with cheese and more.
The menus now change yearly so that, as has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past, troops aren’t stuck with the same boring foods for months on end. The 2016 MREs are what we’re looking at n this article.
Despite being just a single meal, the MRE is packed with food. You could quite easily spin it out to last a full 24 hours and still have three good meals out of it. Aside from theslop-in-a-bag pouches, you get a whole boat load of snacks, plus breads or crackers, a dessert and beverages from coffee to milkshakes to electrolyte drinks. In addition you get an accessory pack which is pretty much unchanged from the Vietnam-era MCI and contains some gum, matches, toilet paper, etc. One revolutionary aspect of the MRE is that you don’t need any sort of stove in order to have a hot meal. Every MRE contains what is called a Flameless Ration Heater which is a bag with a tyvek pad inside containing a mixture of iron oxide and aluminum plus various salts. When a specified amount of water is added to this pad it generates heat and hydrogen gas. There is enough heat in the chemical reaction to heat two slops-in-a-bag or a slop-in-a-bag and a hot beverage bag full of coffee. Speaking of hot beverage bags… these are perfect for use as an emergency water carrier or as a water proof bag for sensitive items. In the past I have used one to waterproof my phone while bushwalking in bad weather.
But what about the food itself? Generally the food is good, although some of it will be unfamiliar to many of us. The grape flavoured beverage base powder (drink powder) and the spiced cider drink for instance are both a bit too American for my delicate Aussie palate.
Highlights of the MREs include – Vegetable crackers, chocolate thickshake, tortillas, book of matches, chemical heaters, hot beverage bags.
With US Marines now rotating through the Northern Territory, it’s not surprising that MREs are becoming more common in Australia. My first crate of MREs fell off the back of a visiting US destroyer in Cairns about ten years ago, but my last batch of MREs this week were purchased quite legitimately off ebay out of Darwin.