ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
At Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, midnight dinner service will end this month. It's part of the drawdown of the Afghan war. That may not sound like a big deal, but former U.S. Army paratrooper David Brown says the Marines at Leatherneck will be losing more than food. He says they'll be losing a venue for camaraderie and support. Across the military, leaders are looking for places they can save money by cutting programs and services.
We want to hear from you. If you've served in the Armed Forces, tell us about a perk that was indispensible, something that made a really big difference in your life. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Brown is a writer, a novelist, who writes under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, and he's also a former U.S. Army paratrooper. His piece "How Meals Win Wars" ran in the Atlantic over the weekend. David joins us now from member station WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Welcome to the show.
DAVID BROWN: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: So when you were serving in Afghanistan in 2006, the midnight meals at Camp Leatherneck started. And the soldier who started this tradition was a guy named John. Tell us a little bit about it.
BROWN: Well, this wasn't actually at Camp Leatherneck. This was a different camp in Afghanistan.
BROWN: Yeah. When I got there, there was no midnight dinner service. And after not very long, a soldier came along and kind of took charge of it, and created it and made it his own. And it very quickly became a venue for, as you mentioned, camaraderie and real sense of brotherhood. People really came together for that. It was a pretty remarkable thing to see.
SHAPIRO: What was it that created that? What was it about the midnight meals?
BROWN: Well, breaking of bread is the first act of solidarity and certainly what could...
SHAPIRO: You also told a story about his grandmother's chili recipe, and this chili that he kept talking up like the founders of Twitter, you say, describing what a tweet is going to be.
BROWN: Right. When we first came in, his job was basically to reheat meals that had been prepared at lunch and an earlier dinner service. And you could tell that it just pained him. It was the most horrifying thing that he ever had to do. So finally, he took it upon himself to launch this spearhead operation to prepare a family recipe of chili that he was very fond of, and this actually became the start of a tradition. Suddenly, every night, this guy was preparing just remarkable meals with very few ingredients.
SHAPIRO: Right. In Afghanistan, as you say, it's not like there's a lot of Whole Foods supermarkets with, you know, gourmet produce.
BROWN: Right. Your average meat in Afghanistan might come in a crate-labeled preformed pork substitutes.
SHAPIRO: And you say that this guy found an old fire pit that was used as an ashtray and turned it into a working grill?
BROWN: Right. When I first got there, we spent an awful lot of time smoking outside of this weird, disused - I'm guessing it was a fire pit. I have no idea, but it seemed ancient. Eventually, he had this wonderful thought and tracked down a metal grating, sufficient in size. And before you know it, we were having barbeque.
SHAPIRO: What was he grilling out there?
BROWN: Whatever kind of meat that would come down the line, whatever would come from wherever it is the Department of Defense acquires their mysterious foods and sent it to us.
SHAPIRO: So I understand the midnight meals are happening, not as financial cutback, but as part of the drawdown from the war in Afghanistan. Why do you think this is going to be a problem?
BROWN: Well, we've been told that it's because of the drawdown, but I do have some questions about that. Certainly, we know that Marines in Camp Leatherneck are going to be there for at least six to nine more months, and we don't even have a certain drawdown date for Afghanistan. Will it be the end of 2014? Will it be 2015? Nobody seems to know. And certainly Leatherneck isn't going away anytime soon. So the question then becomes, what is the real motivation behind this?
SHAPIRO: Is the importance and the value of the midnight meal that you write about, the fact that it's a midnight meal available for everybody? Or is it about this one guy who puts such love and passion and devotion into what he's doing that it created this real sense of community and camaraderie through his efforts?
BROWN: Well, right. If we're talking about the clinical ingestion of calories, yes, you know, MREs are great. But what we're talking about is the breaking of bread between comrades, and it's an atmosphere conducive to decompression. And based on what we know about this war and what we've learned about stress, that's no small thing. This is a place where service members bond.
SHAPIRO: And I take it you fear that as the Pentagon more broadly tries to find cost savings, more things that may look like luxuries to an outsider but are really essential to people on the inside may be on the chopping block.
BROWN: Oh, absolutely. And the Department of Defense is just quite good at cutting things that benefit a soldier while maintaining contracts with defense contractors.
SHAPIRO: There was a piece in The Washington Post over the weekend where the reporter, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, wrote that pay raises, benefits programs and other taxpayer-subsidized services have increased almost 90 percent since 2001 and have become the fastest-growing part of the Defense Department's budget. How do you sustain expenditures like that in a time of budget cuts?
BROWN: Well, let's - we can take that as a two-part question. First of all, after 9/11, obviously, there was a great need to ramp up the number of soldiers we had, soldiers and Marines and so on. After the war in Iraq really started to go south, clearly we needed massive amounts of manpower. And a lot of promises were made. Look, when things were going south in Iraq, how many people were lining up saying, wow, I can't wait to go there? Not that many.
But the Department of Defense is very good at saying, well, we have these wonderful things that we're going to offer you: this great retirement, wonderful retirement age, tuition assistance. And they had small promises like access to the commissary and the base PX. And now all of that is on the table. Already, we've seen tuition assistance for Marines gutted. Meanwhile, we're spending $1.5 trillion on the field, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programs. So I have some suggestions of where we might find money.
SHAPIRO: We also want to hear from veterans and service members in this part of the program. So if you've served in the military, tell us about a perk that was indispensable to you, something that made a really big difference in your life. Call us at 1-800-989-8255, or email us at email@example.com. And we have Hugo from Houston, Texas on the line. Hi, Hugo.
HUGO: Hey, how you doing?
SHAPIRO: Good. Go ahead. Tell us your story.
HUGO: Hey, I served in Iraq, and I served both in the Marines and the Army. And one of the, you know (technical difficulties).
SHAPIRO: Sorry. It sounds like you're cutting out a little bit. Maybe there's some trouble with the phone line. I understand that you were - you got the midnight meal at your base when you were in Iraq. What was the significance of it to you? Sounds like we may have lost you from the line. But I understand that for some people who may be out on patrol, a midnight meal could be the only meal they get in 24 hours aside from the MREs, the meals ready to eat, David Brown.
BROWN: Certainly the only hot meal.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. All right. Well, let's go to John in Indianapolis, another caller on the line. Hi, John. Go ahead.
JOHN: Hey, how are you doing?
JOHN: I was in the Army, 98 Kilo, radio interceptor. I was in Desert Storm way back when...
JOHN: ...and I tell you what, the can opener they gave us to put on our keychain was amazing. You know...
SHAPIRO: Why? Why was it?
JOHN: Well, it's just a can opener, you know, but, you know, it's not the kind of can opener you have at home but, you know, it's a keychain one. And I was - we were searching at home and, you know, in the cupboards 'cause nobody was there. I found a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli, and I opened that can, you know?
SHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah. I imagine that means all the world when you're halfway around the globe in a middle of a warzone.
SHAPIRO: All right, John. Thanks for the call.
JOHN: All right.
SHAPIRO: We have another email from somebody named John here, who writes: My favorite from multiple tours in Middle Eastern countries would be the Tactical Field Exchange, TFE, which would serve much like your corner quick mart. A place to get snacks, batteries, greeting cards and functions is a way to get a taste of home when one has not been home in months.
David, let me contrast that with something else from this Washington Post piece of the weekend where the reporter describes the commissary with filet mignon in a meat rack, wedges of camembert in the cheese section, fresh baguettes in the bakery, two-dozen varieties of Ocean Spray cranberry juice and 15 types of catsup on base at wholesale prices. Obviously, we're not talking about a warzone here, but certainly, some of these things are not necessary in a time of budget cuts, right?
BROWN: Well, this is a - it's a grocery store that they're talking about. This is anything particularly fancy. I think you can find fine cuts of meat at just about anywhere. I see no reason why we had to cut that any more that we would say in these - in this hard economic climate tell the local Albertsons they need (unintelligible).
SHAPIRO: Well, it's an on-base grocery store run by the military, apparently, according to this Washington Post story, at significant cost of the American taxpayer when, you know, Wal-Mart offered the same discount for service members.
SHAPIRO: Sorry. Go ahead.
BROWN: Well, the significance of the commissary on a base stateside is that it's tax free and it's provided for not only active-duty members but also retirees. So if you're talking about someone who really - a retired service member who really doesn't make an awful lot of money and you tell them suddenly, well, you're going to have to find somewhere else to shop - you may have been shopping here for the last literally 40 years - hit the road guy.
SHAPIRO: Let's go to another caller. We have Elizabeth in Kansas City, Missouri on the line. Hi, Elizabeth. Go ahead.
ELIZABETH: Yeah. I'm calling - I'm actually a military wife. My husband was in Iraq in '07, '08 and is now in Afghanistan. And when he was in Iraq, he didn't have Skype. And since he's been in Afghanistan, Skype has been all the difference as far as being a family and being able to communicate and relate and know what's going on and not being lonely. And it's just made a huge difference in our lives for him to have the availability to Skype.
SHAPIRO: That's incredible. I can imagine that that makes all the difference in the world.
ELIZABETH: Yeah. When the other wives complain, I constantly say, you know, tell your husband that you just need to Skype and make it happen.
SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Elizabeth. And, David Brown, you write in this piece about some of the things that are just essential today that might have seen luxuries soon earlier generation; moisture wicking clothing, for example, and other things. Tell us about them.
BROWN: Right. Things such as the mandarin collar on an Army combat uniform, which prevents chaffing around the neck from body armor. There are thing like caffeinated meat that are in MREs. And they are remarkable advancements that had been made in soldiering technology.
SHAPIRO: Now, compared to previous wars you might say, well, these Marines are just going to have deal with it. And, well, the Marines will deal with it. But the truth is there's no reason for us to step back. And if so, how far back should we go? The soldiers in World War I didn't have antibiotics.
We're talking about the dividing line between perks and necessities in the time of military service. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We have an email here from DeeDee(ph), who writes: One of the perks a lot of my crewmates on submarines on the 1990s relied on was 24/7 self-served all-you-can-eat ice cream. We were allowed to drink but not eat while on duty, so there was on-going debate about whether ice cream eating through a straw should be considered a drink.
SHAPIRO: We have...
BROWN: And this are the lovely kind of things that weirdly enough soldier, sailors, airmen and Marines would bond over (unintelligible)...
SHAPIRO: Yeah. They keep you sane when you're under pressure. Sure. We have - sorry - Rashad(ph) from Scottsdale, Arizona on the line. Hi, Rashad. Go ahead.
RASHAD: How are you doing? I love the show. I just kind of want to give a quick shout out for you, SCIENCE FRIDAY's, but...
RASHAD: I'm an Army veteran. And I was stationed at Washington, D.C., at Fort Myer in The Old Guard. And I actually joined for education benefits, GI Bill. And one of the things that was really important to - just the stuff that I've with the GI Bill afterwards with the CLEP program. CLEP is a College Level Examination Program and you essentially can test out of college courses. So that once you go to a college, they will transfer it to that college and you don't have to take that course. I would take the CLEP out of a lot of classes.
And now that I'm out and had used the GI Bill at ASU, I graduated in two years, partly because of being able to pick those classes while I was in, or those exams while I was in and not having to take them over once I got out. So...
RASHAD: ...I actually have, you know, the GI Bill that you get 36 months of paid school and housing allowance. And I have 15 months left, and I'm going to - I'm using them - I'm using the rest that I have to do a master's program. So in three years I'll have my masters and my undergrad all free. And a part - a big part of that I attribute to this CLEP program, where they allow you to take those exams for free.
SHAPIRO: That's great. Thanks for the call, Rashad.
RASHAD: Yeah, for sure.
SHAPIRO: Let's go to Rebecca in Austin, Texas now. This is - hang on a second or go into Rebecca - technical difficulties. Here we go. Rebecca is on the line. Hi, Rebecca in Austin. Go ahead.
REBECCA: Hi. I guess I appreciate the chance to talk here. I just - I think that that time and space is so valuable for soldiers. My experience particularly when I didn't have that available, didn't have the time or the facility available to be compressed. I mean...
SHAPIRO: You're talking about specifically about the midnight meal here?
REBECCA: Yes. And just in the place I was in Afghanistan, the opportunity - I mean, it did exist there post, but that the opportunity was not available for me to participate in that. And, you know, here in the states you can go home after a days work and talk about your workmates and, you know, blow some steam. But if you don't have that space available to you, I mean, that's how soldiers end up extremely stressed through the deployment and on the way back.
And that leads into the programs that are being spent - where money is being allocated on the backside. I mean, you're talking about cutting these small things. They seem like small things while you're deployed but, I mean, it's the little things that really, really matter to the sanity of our service members over there.
SHAPIRO: David Brown, just briefly. We've talked a lot about the midnight meal. What were the other little things that made a huge difference when you were deployed?
BROWN: Well, there are a number of things. And this may go back several wars. I mean, obviously, little things I would consider a big thing, such as the U.S. Postal Service - remarkable downrange. And that was always a priority, to make sure that we get mail out to the soldiers. And that's a huge morale builder. There are two ways to really build morale when you're down there. One, contact by home. And two, contact and camaraderie among each other.
SHAPIRO: I understand that you have a story about colonel once getting kicked off a helicopter when he come for a mailbag.
BROWN: Right. That was one of my favorite moments in Afghanistan. We were loading up on a helicopter and there was a full bird colonel there and a couple of lieutenant colonels. And suddenly, someone ran up for the bag of mail for one of the fire bases we were heading out to. And the colonel just looked at the lieutenant colonel and said: Get the hell off this plane.
SHAPIRO: And the mail is more important than you are.
BROWN: Right. Exactly.
BROWN: And it truly it is, it is.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. That's David Brown, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, who writes for The Atlantic under the byline D.B. Grady. He also has a new book out with Marc Ambinder called "Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry." He joined us today from member station WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Thanks for your time today, David.
BROWN: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, we'll talk about political asylum - who gets it, who doesn't and how it may change. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.