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.