The Department of Defense (DoD) says there are about 1.3 million active duty military and more than 800,000 reserve forces in the United States Armed Forces.
According to VeryWellHealth.com, about 6 out of every 100 people are gluten-sensitive (and one out of about 130 are dealing with celiac disease).
So, it can be assumed that roughly 120,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen (and women) and marines are dealing with some sort of gluten sensitivity.
As with so many elements of military life, “rough” is the key word.
Can people with celiac serve in the military?
Officially speaking, the DoD does not allow anyone with such a condition to enlist. In fact, their Medical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment or Induction in the Military Service says all individuals who are accepted into military service must be “qualified, effective and able-bodied persons’” who are capable of successfully performing military duties.
As all military personnel are expected to be available for deployment 24 hours a day (including to places where medical support may be lacking or non-existent), having a dietary restriction that goes beyond personal belief can be a serious issue. Perhaps this is why the DoD’s policies specifically state that anyone with a “current or history of intestinal malabsorption syndromes including but not limited to celiac…does not meet the [medical] standard.”
Fortunately, there are ways to help those who are enlisted keep their digestive issues to a minimum.
“Military members diagnosed with celiac disease while on active duty are evaluated for medical fitness per the Standards of Medical Fitness,” explains Army Col. (Retired) Joanna Reagan, a registered dietitian with the U.S. Army Public Health Center, who also notes that these soldiers are then referred to a registered dietitian who can “help personalize a healthy eating plan” and who can also “educate soldiers with a variety of resources.”
According to Col. Reagan, soldiers with special dietary needs are often put into a subsistence-in-kind program given “separate rations to…prepare their own meals.” She also recommends that such soldiers “seek out naturally gluten-free food groups which include: fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, dairy, beans, legumes and nuts.”
Does the military provide for soldiers with celiac?
For most soldiers, the main sources of nutrition are meals ready-to-eat (a.k.a., “MREs”). While these dehydrated foods may not be 100 percent gluten-free, many companies providing those meals have been expanding their lines to offer more choices with less chance of contamination. MRE Star recently compiled a set of 12 meals that are predominately protein-based (e.g., beef stew, Curry chicken, pinto beans, etc.) and so minimize any risk, even if they may not remove it altogether.
Col. Reagan suggests that soldiers dealing with gluten sensitivity and other concerned civilians consult The Combat Rations Database, which, she explains, is “an interactive, educational website designed for visitors to view accurate, up-to-date nutritional information about combat ration menus.”
While the military itself provides many MREs, many independent distributors (including families and religious and community groups) have been working to assemble care packages that truly care for people with special diets or dietary restrictions. Among these is Military Missions In Action, an North Carolina-based organization that is dedicated to assisting members of the Armed Forces who are dealing with disabilities of any sort – from being without limbs to being without homes to being without enough appropriate food while in the field or back in the States.
“Way too often our service members with dietary restrictions are overlooked,” says Military Missions In Action Executive Director Michael Dorman. And even though he admits that only about 1 percent of Dorman’s 8,500 care package requests have involved special diets, he and his volunteers are happy to pack them with love and also with nuts and nut butters, gluten-free gum and candy, and even gluten-free Girl Scout cookies!
In addition to providing soldiers, students, and others with dietarily-appropriate care packages, SnackBOX donates part of their proceeds to hungry people around the world.
If these organizations do not do it for you (or you just want to do it yourself), that extra-special care can make any care package even more special. In a 2015 post on the blog “Livin’ the Crunchy Life”, a veteran with celiac recalls assembling his own gluten-free packages for soldiers.
“I was quite overwhelmed with all of the companies that donated product for this project,” the poster recalls, providing a list of participants that can make similar assemblies easier for others. “As a veteran that now knows I can’t eat gluten, I would have been so happy to receive one of these when deployed!”
How many soldiers are gluten free?
According to a “data pull” from Comprehensive Ambulatory Provider Encounter Record (CAPER) on Nov. 19, 2019, Col. Reagan, says that there were 156 active-duty soldiers in 2017 and 130 active-duty soldiers in 2018 with celiac disease. As many soldiers know that gluten-related issues can impair or even preclude their serving, however, it is most definitely the case that many are dealing with these issues but not declaring or discussing them. Some, however, are choosing to speak out and bring the oft-hidden issue of gluten sensitivity into the light.
In 2011, Army National Guard Captain B. Donald Andrasik caused a stir with his book Gluten-Free in Afghanistan, in which he detailed the lengths he had to go through to serve while dealing with celiac disease.
“It was certainly a challenge,” Andrasik recalls, explaining that, instead of quitting, he began to look for new sources of food, realizing that some might be risky.
While soldiers in the United States can be given non-active duty posts so that they can be given appropriate medical care if something goes wrong with their diet, other countries do not limit their soldiers. In 2015, the Israeli Defense Forces announced plans to provide gluten-free battle rations and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made it possible for soldiers with these conditions to receive the ranking that allows them to join combat units. Hopefully, other nations (including ours) will soon follow suit.
In the meantime, however, there are alternatives and ways to support soldiers in need. So if you or someone you know is dealing with gluten-related issues while deployed or wants to serve but is afraid of policy or other potential pitfalls, or if you just want to say “thank you” in a way that will truly show you care, there are more ways to send food and love than ever.