JoeHarnerFor a while, during my 2003 deployment in Baghdad, Iraq I was with a group of Army engineers based out of Puerto Rico. We were staying on the third floor of the former governor’s palace, which had been taken over by the U.S. military. There were about 15 of us—civil engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers. Our mission was to bring back up the municipal services like water, sewer, power. I was assessing the power plants that were damaged in Iraq and figuring out what we were going to need to do to put them back on line and bring them back up to running status. In the National Guard and the Reserves, we have a lot of civilian careers outside of the military, and one of the Puerto Rican engineers happened to be a four-star chef.

After we’d get back from a mission, we’d take out our MREs. We’d be sitting around, joking and having a good time and this guy says, “I’m going to make us something good.” So we’d all collect our MRES together and we’d open them up. We’d separate them into piles: chicken, beef, rice, potatoes, all the little pouches and stuff like that. And this cook cooked. The palace had big gas stoves, running water and everything you needed in the kitchen. He would take these different components of the MRES and he would mix them together, using the different seasonings they came with—tabasco sauce, pepper, salt, sometimes the jalapeño cheese sauce. Since we actually had a heat source, he would sauté all the chicken packages together or mix the beef packages with the vegetables.

So for about three weeks we had some very good meals made out of the MREs. We would have good, hot four or five-course meals—entrees, vegetables and potatoes or rice, depending on what he decided to make, and nobody left an empty plate. When that guy started cooking for us, making us dinners that were like you were back home, it changed everything. You weren’t eating out of a bag. You weren’t heating with a chemical water heater. We actually served it on plates with forks and knives and a glass to drink your drinks out of. It was like eating meals. It brought your sprit, everybody’s spirit, up because it brought a sense of normality back to where we were at, which was, you know, hell.

Combat-Ready Kitchen opens and closes with the memories of DJ, a marine who bonded over a shared MRE in a bunker while being fired on by Saddam Hussein, and Sergeant Michael Kent Jr., who fed his lunch rations to starving local children in Honduras. This page features the soldier stories that didn’t make it into the book, as well as others from the dozens of veterans who responded to my query on the website and in its newsletters., thank you so much for your help!
If are a veteran or soldier and would like to share your experience of eating field rations while deployed, email me with a description and photo or send me a video link. I’d be honored to post your story in the gallery.