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Bloated in Baghdad

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Posted on Apr 28, 2008
soldiers line up for grub
AP photo / Chris Tomlinson

U.S. soldiers line up to order food from a Burger King at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.

By Sarah Stillman

CAMP STRYKER, Iraq—The first warning that many U.S. troops receive here in Baghdad isn’t about the rampant IEDs (improvised explosive devices), or the RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), or even the EFPs (explosively formed projectiles). It’s about the PCPs: the pervasive combat paunches.

As I wait for my C-130 flight from Kuwait to western Baghdad, a soldier tells me about a PowerPoint slide that’s becoming popular in Army briefings: “Back in 2003, the average soldier lost 15 pounds during his tour of Iraq,” he recounts. “Now, he gains 10.” 

Arriving at Camp Stryker, I get to savor the dilemma firsthand. My low-slung Army tent is pitched just down the road from a Pizza Hut, a Burger King and a Green Beans Coffee—the war-zone cousin of Starbucks that sells mocha frappes for a cheeky $4.25. Around the corner sits a massive chow hall run by former Halliburton subsidiary KBR Inc. where troops load up on four varieties of fried meats and five flavors of Baskin Robbins. The facility is billed as “all-you-can-eat,” and, trust me, soldiers do.

Traveling all the way to a war zone to report on military calorie counts may seem like the height of triviality, especially as Baghdad’s security situation implodes. But Camp Stryker’s butterball cuisine is more than a frivolous aside; it’s an entree into the general engorgement of the war itself.

Where, for instance, do the mountains of beef patties, pecan pies and Coco Puffs come from? The Houston-based KBR farms out most of its $27-billion government contract to Gulf states middlemen, who greet initial food shipments in Kuwait. Low-wage Pakistani and Nepali subcontractors then distribute the goods to U.S. mess halls, where even lower-wage Indians and Sri Lankans prepare them for the troops. All along the route are markups galore, sometimes exceeding 500 percent.

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This logistical gravy train creates the unchecked fat on America’s profile here in Baghdad. The bloat applies to basic counterinsurgency strategy, too. Even after Gen. David Petraeus shifted several units out of giant bases and into Joint Security Stations—humbler urban outposts where soldiers, to use the general’s words, live “among those we are trying to protect”—the average U.S. camp remains a behemoth and a glutton. Over 70 percent of American troops here are classified as “support” forces, meaning they may never step outside the wire to engage in local operations or address community grievances over a customary glass of chai. These big-base bureaucrats are known to front-line soldiers as “Fobbits”—a play on the acronym for “forward-operating base” (FOB) that echoes J.R.R. Tolkien’s plump, provincial milquetoasts.

The whole scenario unfolds to the ironic soundtrack of “support the troops.”  The FOB experience in Iraq, particularly on larger posts, is defined by countless privatized efforts to console and distract: mini-marts where soldiers can buy PlayStations and Harley-Davidsons; KBR recreation facilities where they can shoot pool or take salsa lessons; fast food joints where they can kick back with a non-alcoholic beer and a personalized pizza. Such perks ostensibly make soldiers feel more at home. But many insist that the surreal arrangement only highlights what they’ve been asked to leave behind. A baseline fact remains: Troops’ psyches can’t be bought with bikes or bacon double cheeseburgers (or re-enlistment bonuses, or college loans, or fill-in-the-latest-bait)—especially after Gen. George Casey’s acknowledgment that “the current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply.” 

Passing time in a rec tent back in Kuwait, I chat with a soft-spoken 28-year-old sergeant who is preparing to fly back into the caldron of Baghdad’s Sadr City after three weeks of R&R in Georgia. In a room strewn with crepe paper palm trees and plastic hula skirts left over from the previous night’s “Spring Fling Luau,” the two of us look like attendees at a cornball junior prom. But the sergeant’s mind is a long way from such frivolities: He has recently lost his squad leader, and two other soldiers from his area of operations were killed a few days later.

Burying his head in his hands as we talk, he says: “All the Burger Kings in the world wouldn’t be enough for this. Some of us are on our third or fourth tours, and we just can’t do this anymore—we really can’t.”


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By Howdy Hoe, March 25, 2010 at 5:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

if they are going to ban junk food, they need to kick out all the movie vendors who sell hadji / pirate movies in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. The 50 Billion Dollars made a year Pirate Movie Industry and probably 1/2 of that is made in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan!

If these military leaders are going to be tough on their troops, then start having NCIS, CID, OSI and DCIS start enforcement / arresting troops for purchasing pirated movies. 1/2 of the distributors are probably insurgents anyway, so why are we helping fund an illegal industry?

There were movie vendors all over the Green Zone last time I was there, kicking out Junk Food dealers is a minor problem and none of that money ever went to the enemy….

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By Brooke, April 30, 2009 at 7:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am disgusted at the number of negative responses to our soldiers here.  My husband is currently in Iraq, and if having an F#$%ing playstation allows him to get through the day without thinking about all the things he is missing at home, who cares?  Yeah, he signed up for this and he volunteered, but that sure as hell doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye to our son and little girl every single time he has to get on that plane…. it doesn’t change the fact that he has to handle the fact of losing fellow soldiers, alone, because we can’t be there to console him.. For all of you who think they are soldiers and should just suck it up, I quote my favorite bumper sticker I have ever seen, “If you can’t stand behind our troops, by God, go stand in front of them!”

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By cyrena, April 30, 2008 at 11:10 pm Link to this comment

I dunno Jackpine…on the 3rd ‘option’ you mention, this is a far more sobering view. It’s also not ‘new’. Or, maybe I should say it’s been on-going for as long as KBR and our troops have been in Iraq, and KBR got there before our troops did.

  Is There an Army Cover-Up of Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers?
  By Ann Wright
  t r u t h o u t | Perspective
  Monday 28 April 2008
  The Department of Defense statistics are alarming - one in three women who join the US military will be sexually assaulted or raped by men in the military. The warnings to women should begin above the doors of the military recruiting stations, as that is where assaults on women in the military begin - before they are even recruited.

  But, now, even more alarming, are deaths of women soldiers in Iraq and in the United States following rape. The military has characterized each death of women who were first sexually assaulted as deaths from “noncombat related injuries,” and then added “suicide.” Yet, the families of the women whom the military has declared to have committed suicide strongly dispute the findings and are calling for further investigations into the deaths of their daughters. Specific US Army units and certain US military bases in Iraq have an inordinate number of women soldiers who have died of “noncombat related injuries,” with several identified as “suicides.”

  Ninety-four US military women have died in Iraq or during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Twelve US civilian women have been killed in OIF. Thirteen US military women have been killed in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Twelve US Civilian women have been killed in Afghanistan.

  Of the 94 US military women who died in Iraq or in OIF, the military says 36 died from noncombat related injuries, which included vehicle accidents, illness, death by “natural causes” and self-inflicted gunshot wounds, or suicide. The military has declared the deaths of the Navy women in Bahrain, which were killed by a third sailor, as homicides. Five deaths have been labeled as suicides, but 15 more deaths occurred under extremely suspicious circumstances.

  Eight women soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, (six from the Fourth Infantry Division and two from the 1st Armored Cavalry Division) have died of “noncombat related injuries” on the same base, Camp Taji, and three were raped before their deaths. Two were raped immediately before their deaths and another raped prior to arriving in Iraq. Two military women have died of suspicious “noncombat related injuries” on Balad base, and one was raped before she died. Four deaths have been classified as “suicides.”

  Nineteen-year-old US Army Pvt. Lavena Johnson was found dead on the military base in Balad, Iraq, in July, 2005, and her death characterized by the US Army to be suicide from a self-inflicted M-16 shot. On April 9, 2008, Dr. John Johnson and his wife Linda, parents of Private Johnson, flew from their home in St. Louis for meetings with US Congress members and their staffs. They were in Washington to ask that Congressional hearings be conducted on the Army’s investigation into the death of their daughter, an investigation that classified her death as a suicide despite extensive evidence suggesting she was murdered.

  The rest of the piece is at the link. Hopefully this gives another real view of the situation there that we might give some thought to here.. And yeah..the details are nasty.

http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/042808A.shtml

There is another article, (actually there are several on this) entitled “KBR’s Rape Problem” but I’d have to dig for it. Their victims include Iraqi women as well, but there’s far less to confirm there, because of the hideousness of rape in the Muslim culture. Even acknowledging it is more than they can manage, so often they never make the claims or otherwise bring it to anyone’s attention.

Same spot for that piece though…truthout.org

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By Matt, April 30, 2008 at 7:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I just spent 3 years as a contractor in Iraq, traveled through several, several bases in Iraq.

Yes it is true the fast food joints are disgusting, overpriced and sometimes don’t even offer veggies due to ‘lack of convoys’.
Obviously the author failed to make it to the salad line. Coincidence? Probably not. Most people usually skip the fried foods and go for the healthier selection of food available.
Author also doesnt seem to know how highly regulated the dining facilities are by the US Military. If those facilities were ran by the military they would look exactly the same, carry exactly the same foods. Only difference would be military personnel serving food and a lager military supervision staff (usually there are up to 4 military specialist that inspects each contracted out dining facility).
The author also failed to make it to a FOB manned by 100 soldiers, where the living conditions are less and the food is a high fat, highly preserved selection of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).
The recreation centers are highly used and provide free internet useage and several phones for calling families, rotation selection of movies. If anyone spent several months at a base in Iraq you would begin to enjoy the recreational activities that are provided.
Most of you will never realize what soldiers go through out there. But you want to quote war movies and analyze the budgets. You really can’t put a price on a soldiers smile.

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By jackpine savage, April 30, 2008 at 4:13 pm Link to this comment

Mickey D’s ain’t hardly booze, drugs, and cheap whores…but since it’s a Islamic country the first is out; since the military tests the soldiers the second is out; and since the troops aren’t even allowed porn anymore, the third is probably out too.

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By Allen Wood, April 30, 2008 at 4:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks Sam,
        PT Barnum had it figured out a long time ago when he said “Theres a sucker born every minute”. When you have a society that is more pre-occupied with wat is happening with Brittany or Paris, or “Who won that game last night?“its no wonder that America is a laughing stock. The water boy on an NFL Football team makes more than Jug Ears himself. What a Joke. We as Americans deserve to be kicked to the curb. I can just imagine what the ET’s think of the human population on this planet. The entire human life on earth must look to them like a great big comedy show. We as humans are pathetic, and deserve to perish.

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By TDoff, April 30, 2008 at 3:21 pm Link to this comment

Geez, let our troops find a little comfort and solace in the midst of the Iraq debacle.

As unappetizingly disgusting as Mickey D’s slop is, it’s better than the rat jerky and CaCa Puffs served in the KBR-supplied messes.

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By Jaimono, April 30, 2008 at 2:44 pm Link to this comment

Well said Rodney. For the rest of the world who look at the American gory show in Iraq swallowing our anger and indignation, we can only hope that all that gluttony may have fatal consequences.

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By David, April 30, 2008 at 1:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

And you will do this as many times as we want you to.  Unless of course, you would rather be in the brig.  Remember, Sargent, you volunteered so just suck it up and go kill you some Hajis.  The only way out of THIS war is in a flag draped coffin.

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By San Fernando Curt, April 30, 2008 at 10:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Until we pack enough wad to get up off our haunches and demand that Israel fight its own wars, and that oil companies quit their Mideast plantations, you and I are the hypocritcal pansies, Gregorio.

How much shrapnel have you dodged today?

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By Steve, April 30, 2008 at 6:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When seeing photoes of overweight female soldiers I had worried about the rate of pregnancies of these ladies. After reading this article I was relieved to learn this is caused by calories rather than the exercise of reproductive rights. Steve WW2

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By Mainspark, April 30, 2008 at 5:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“But i wonder, would you call him a pansy to his face?”

Dick Cheney would…and did.

“They volunteered.”

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By jackpine savage, April 29, 2008 at 6:53 pm Link to this comment

He volunteered to defend his country if/when it was in need.  He didn’t volunteer to be sent to occupy Iraq for no good reason.  We don’t know if he re-upped voluntarily or was stop-lossed.  I know a guy who completed his whole enlistment, went into the reserves, and then got sent to Iraq.

And besides all that, he’s talking about losing his friends.  His point was that all the whoppers in the world don’t cover up the smell of blood.

But i wonder, would you call him a pansy to his face?

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By PatrickHenry, April 29, 2008 at 5:52 pm Link to this comment

Strictly commercial, no wonder its busting our budgets here at home. 

When I was in we had mess duty, C-rats and the trusty P-38 John Wayne. I still have mine and it works as good as new.

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By Gregorio, April 29, 2008 at 3:22 pm Link to this comment

1. that the people delivering and serving the food are not Iraqi, and probably considered military contractors even if they are from India and poorly paid, while KBR loots the soldiery for junk food

2. that the soldier at the end, in woeful self-pity observes that after multiple tours of duty his people just CAN’T do this anymore.  That they never SHOULD have been doing this in the first place is not an issue.  He’s asking for sympathy for the suffering he volunteered for and remained with for multiple tours, and apparently now this includes the quality of the food.  What a f…ing hypocritical pansy.

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By jackpine savage, April 29, 2008 at 3:04 pm Link to this comment

If you’ve never been on a foreign base, you’d be surprised.  It isn’t just Iraq.  We build mini-Americas all over the world.  I once made the mistake of ordering the “all you can eat” buffet at one of the restaurants in the Yongsan Garrison (i only snuck in there once, to buy 10 apple pies for resale to other foreigners).  After a year of living on an Asian diet, that one meal almost killed me.

I wrote a semi quote from Apocalypse Now earlier, but there’s another line in that movie that is telling for this situation.  Capt. Willard and the boat crew have just met Col. Kilgore; they’re trying to get his assistance.  Kilgore and his men are barbecuing steaks on the beach and drinking beer.  Capt. Willard remarks to himself that by trying to make Vietnam just like home, they only miss home more.

Those lattes and whoppers aren’t making life any easier for the soldiers and marines; cold comfort, perhaps, but there aren’t enough hours of playstation time to escape from the fact that death might be around the next corner…nor for them to forget that the people back home aren’t even paying attention.

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By jackpine savage, April 29, 2008 at 2:32 pm Link to this comment

Glad someone got it.

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By rodney, April 29, 2008 at 11:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Here’s mission accomplished in Iraq. When the US control all of the oil fields along with how much a day we can pump. When you can see a Iraqi woman wearing make up,lipstick.a mini-skirt,a top showing cleavsge,high-heels,while eating a Mcdonalds cheeseburger drinking a coke and pumping Exxon gas into her Ford. And by the way the strip club is next to the military base. That’s mission accomplished! That.s who we are and what we are about. We distroy cultures only to replace them with American greed.corruption and sleeze . Keeping the violence down isn’tmportant unless it’s Americans being killed.

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By felicity, April 29, 2008 at 9:25 am Link to this comment

During WWII the American Tobacco Syndicate gave out free cigarettes to military personnel - not a whole pack, just a few (to get them started?)

It was only later that what had been considered to be a magnanimous gesture by big tobacco was actually their way of addicting thousands to the tobacco habit.  I understand junk food is addictive.

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By Aegrus, April 29, 2008 at 8:05 am Link to this comment

Yet another example of how the Iraq Occupation is a boondoggle. Opening the doors for corporations, and charging soldiers money that funnels up to continue to keep them in harms way. Disgraceful.

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By TDoff, April 29, 2008 at 7:30 am Link to this comment

There’s hope in this scenario.

Among the myriad of military regulations, isn’t there one that defines when a soldier is ‘Too fat to fight?’

Our troops aren’t stupid. ‘Make that triple cheese on the burger’, may be their way of trying to get the hell out of the hell-hole they’re trapped in.

Fat chance. The Army will waive that regulation, and KBR will have the opportunity to make another fortune supplying new ‘one size fits all’ uniforms of stretch Kevlar.

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By SuGee, April 29, 2008 at 6:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Have you seen anything that the Bush Adminstration has done that makes destroying our military force reasonable? NO!.  The current occupiers of the White House have continually desmonstrated their War Criminal nature and simply “porking up the troops” to destroy their minds is a very poor excuse. 3 and 4 tours of duty to Iraq?  Remember that we have 4 Permanent Bases/US towns already in Iraq.  They choose to not call them by their proper name, but that’s what they are. When I hear that another US. soldier was killed, I say What did you expect?  We PRE-EMPTIVELY attacked a sovereign nation WITHOUT just cause. We’re occuppying Iraq.  If WE were pre-emptively attacked, would you welcome the opposing force.  NO; OF COURSE NOT.

I still say that GWB’S motive in pre-emptively attacking Iraq was to move the military bases out of Saudia Arabia per the Royal Family’s request/demand.  He’s a serial killer and his father-figure, “Unka Dicky” is a similiar alcoholic and also a war criminal.  Who, in God’s name would have 2 beers(at lunch) and then go shooting?  He doesn’t even exert a little energy walking around for the released catch? He’s the one that wanted to go to “the dark side.”  Yet, the MSM is discussing Reverend Wright like that’s the biggest news.  Once again, I say, I’m ashamed to be an American.

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By SuGee, April 29, 2008 at 6:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Have you seen anything that the Bush Adminstration has done that makes destroying our military force reasonable? NO!.  The current occupiers of the White House have continually desmonstrated their War Criminal nature and simply “porking up the troops” to destroy their minds is a very poor excuse. 3 and 4 tours of duty to Iraq?  Remember that we have 4 Permanent Bases/US towns already in Iraq.  They choose to not call them by their proper name, but that’s what they are. When I hear that another US. soldier was killed, I say What did you expect?  We PRE-EMPTIVELY attacked a sovereign nation WITHOUT just cause.

I still say that GWB motive to pre-emptively attacking Iraq was to move the military bases out of Saudia Arabia per the royal family’s request/demand.  He’s a serial killer and his father-figure, “Unka Dicky” is an alcoholic and also a war criminal.  Who, in God’s name would have 2 beers(at lunch) and then go shooting?  He doesn’t even exert a little energy walking around for the released catch? He’s the one that wanted to go to “the dark side.”  Yet, the MSM is discussing Reverend Wright like that’s the biggest news.  Once again, I say, I’m ashamed to be an American.

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By Paracelsus, April 29, 2008 at 5:46 am Link to this comment

Cold rice and rat meat? BTW, Charlie don’t surf!

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By jackpine savage, April 29, 2008 at 4:24 am Link to this comment

But there’s only two ways home for the Hajis living off of whatever it is that they manage to fill their bellies with: death or victory.

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By Sam, April 29, 2008 at 2:36 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is just a big scam to make money.. i.e. transfer taxpayer dollars to connected contractors and their cronies while using third world labor to maximize profits. The soldiers are just there to provide an excuse to fleece the american taxpayer without questioning the crime.

I remember working for a Govt. contractor in the DC area during the Reagan years where 20 engineers were assigned to a project that required maybe 2. This was OK for the Contractor as it was allowed to charge a big overhead per worker to the govt. (tax money). In this case the contractor made more money by bloating his payroll and the workers also made money but the tax paying public got shafted.

Now in Iraq the contractors have figured out the game so that the workers (slave labor from third world and the soldiers) get nothing and the contractors can charge all they want.

what a joke on the taxpayers of America

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By lane08, April 28, 2008 at 11:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Interesting and eerie article.

Reminds me of East Oakland: long idle hours, tremendous blight, punctuated by violence and the only businesses not boarded up are the unhealthy fast food franchises. The “culture” we’re importing has already failed at home.

Soldiers will come home with PTSD and drug problems as they did in Viet Nam—but now they’ll also have eating disorders.

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By Paracelsus, April 28, 2008 at 10:00 pm Link to this comment

Better is a dry morsel and quietness therewith, than a house full of feasting with strife.

From Jewish Publication Society Tanakh

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