President Barack Obama has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and as the drawdown begins some U.S. soldiers are enduring new sacrifices like the end of cooked breakfasts.
The Army has stopped serving cooked breakfasts to some of the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan as part of its drawdown, a move that prompted troops to write home asking their families and friends to send care packages with cereal, breakfast bars and other foods.
The Army told the Washington Guardian the current cutbacks began Jan. 1, and affect about 2,700 soldiers deployed in forward operating bases in more remote areas of Afghanistan.
Officials said the reduction of cooked breakfasts and midnight meals is not related to the U.S. budget crisis, but rather is part of the effort to begin closing down U.S. operations in the affected areas and transition them to Afghan troops. The affected soldiers are being given packaged meals known as MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) as substitutes for a cooked breakfast, the officials said.
"As a part of the responsible draw down of operational forces serving in Afghanistan, my staff examined ways to reduce our footprint and set the conditions for the reduction of forces,” explained Col. Joe Wawro, an infantry commander for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat team.
Wawro said military and civilian leaders collaborated on ideas and “estimated that by changing the meal cycle, they would reduce their overall operations by 40 percent” if breakfast and midnight snacks were converted from cooked options to MREs.
“After carefully examining all these inputs, I decided to modify the meal cycle as described above. This has absolutely nothing to do with the national budget and everything to do with our responsible reduction of forces,” he said.
Wawro said soldiers in the affected bases still get cooked lunch and dinners, and rely on MREs for breakfast and night snacks and that “most dining facilities have a variety of take-away items like cereal, milk juice, fruit, oatmeal, granola bars, etc. to augment the MREs.”
“I see this as a good thing; even though some of the amenities may change as we head home, our Afghan partners continue to transition into the areas we once held,” he said.
Several families of affected soldiers began contacting the Washington Guardian several days ago to raise concerns about the change, reporting their sons, daughters or spouses had written home to seek care packages after the end of cooked breakfasts.
The families refused to speak on the record for fear their loved ones might be singled out for complaining. But they described messages sent via email, Facebook and other social media in which troops didn’t fully understand the reasons for the changes and worried they were related to impending budget cutbacks.
The Washington Guardian reported earlier this month that the current budget crisis in Congress prompted Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to write a memo order preparations for sweeping budget cuts across all military programs to begin as early as next month.
But officials said those orders were not impacting the Afghanistan decisions. They said the meal cutbacks are currently affecting forward operating bases in more remote areas of Afghanistan and not affecting the main American bases in Kabul and Kandahar.
Officials stressed other comforts at the forward operating bases may also soon be reduced, such as laundry and recreation, as officials look for other ways to reduce the American footprint in advance of departing the country.
“In order to set the conditions for each base closure or a base transfer, non-tactical logistics and support services (i.e. any non-mission essential services) must decline. Typically the complete cessation of non-tactical logistics and services, such as laundry services or morale, welfare and recreation services, occurs 2-3 months prior to a base closure or transfer,” Lt. Col. Paul Haverstick said.
“That said, commanders may determine they need to make such changes earlier or phase them in slower over a longer period of time. Such decisions depend on a myriad of factors, such as the size of the base, its location and the transportation assets available to a commander,” he said.
The U.S. military has already transitioned about 50 bases from American to Afghan control and is in the process of a drawdown to be completed by 2014 to meet President Barack Obama’s pledge, officials said. There are currently about 68,000 Americans troops in the country as the U.S., according to NATO, down from more than 100,000 after a 2009 U.S. “surge” designed to overcome a spike in violence that threatened the stability of Afghanistan.
MREs or Meals Ready to Eat are preserved, ready-to-go meals, often with freeze-dried or canned foods, that the military provides soldiers for mobile assignments.
Forward Operating Bases are smaller military bases, usually temporary and operating in more remote locations, that are used to support tactical operations.