Our armed forces endure a lot to keep us safe. Constant threats, scorching temperatures, and some truly gnarly food. (Consider yourself lucky if you've never encountered an MRE, or "Meals, Ready-to-Eat".) Since we spend hours fantasizing about our first meal home when we just go on vacation for a week, we asked former and current troops about the food they had to eat the second they returned from a tour -- or, in two instances, the second they got out of boot camp. Whether they ended up at the Golden Arches or their Mom's kitchen, they were all very, very happy not to eat another meatloaf-flavored brick. These are their stories.
Steak and sushi beats goat
Phil Cordeiro, Marines
"I went to the Western portion of Iraq, Al Waleed in Al Anbar. It's a river town between Iraq and Syria. The main shocker is just the lack of municipal infrastructure. There's no running water, roads aren’t great. Sanitation is really nonexistent. Having been born and raised in the US, you don’t appreciate what that’s like, until you go weeks without a shower. That’s really the main thing you miss.
"I was mainly eating MREs. They’re really not that bad. They have all kinds of different stuff, like tuna and spaghetti. The only problem is you end up eating the same thing every seven days for eight months. There's nothing fresh, like fruits and vegetables. Sometimes we would eat with our counterparts. Every couple months, they’d slaughter a goat. They would bleed out the goat in a traditional manner, and you’d have nuts and rice as sides. That was good in that it was fresh.
"When I got home, I wanted surf ‘n turf, sushi and steak. So the first thing I did was I took a shower. Like a half an hour shower. My roommate and I had a kegerator, and I probably had like three beers in the shower. Then I went with my roommates and a few other friends to a sushi place called [Miso] Harney Sushi. We pretty much got one of everything on the menu as far as sushi goes, but it was a steak dinner combination. So sashimi paired with different kinds of beef. We also had several Japanese beers, like Sapporo and Kirin Ichiban. And two bottles of Ozeki Nigori unfiltered sake. Then there was mochi ice cream for dessert. It was great. The food was great, and the place has a cool atmosphere since it’s near the pier area of Oceanside. And then after that, we went to this Southern California chain Pizza Port, for more beer. We probably called it a night at 1am."
Thank you, 24-hour drive-thru
Angel Beltre, Marines
"For my third tour, I spent seven months in Sangin, Afghanistan. I was basically only eating MREs, with the occasional mailed care package with some snacks from home.
"I knew I wanted pizza. I had been craving pizza. I'm a pizza fanatic. (And of course I also wanted a good home-cooked meal from my wife.) But by the time I got back home and met up with my family, it was really late, something like 2am. So there weren't really many options. There was a McDonald's across from my house and since I just wanted food, I went straight there. I ate a #1 Big Mac meal. I took it back home and it was delicious."
Nothing smells like good BBQ
Josh Gamma, National Guard
"A food memory that stands out is when I was in basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. There was this parade field, and during training we’d march out there almost every day. This was the summer in South Carolina, so it was 100 degrees all the time. It was rough. But there was a BBQ place just on the other side of the field that you could smell when you were marching around. So we were marching, sweating, nearly passing out, but also smelling this beautiful BBQ place. I swore to myself I would go there as soon as I got out.
"So when my parents came for my basic training graduation and asked what I wanted to do, I said, 'That place. We gotta go there.' It was just amazing, delicious South Carolina BBQ. I believe some pulled pork was involved -- it might’ve been a pulled pork sandwich. Very satisfying. After being in Austin for all these years, I wonder what I would think now. Because in Texas, it's more than just smoked meat. There're places in Texas where they don't even have BBQ sauce. It's sacrilege. But in that moment, when I was eating it, it was exactly what I wanted."
Eating an entire tray of chicken
April Ripley, Marines
"I was in Iraq for 11 months, and it was just miserable. It’s really hot, and it’s just a big adjustment going from living stateside to living there for almost a year. I basically lived off MREs and those little boxes of cereal that kids eat.
"I was writing my Mom for months telling her what I wanted as soon as I got off the bus. It's a recipe my Grandma has been making forever, and my Mom does now too. It’s a piece of chicken in a white wine and mandarin orange sauce over rice. It’s my absolute favorite, and it was all I wanted.
"So when I got off the bus, I gave my Mom and my Dad a hug. And then they took me to a hotel room they had rented, where they had a whole tray of it waiting. I devoured that entire tray. They also had bread pudding, which is one of my favorites. To say it lived up to expectations is an understatement."
30 McNuggets in one sitting
Elias Dasilva, Marines
"I was in Camp Taji in Iraq for nine months. Overall there were a lot of ups and downs. We were mortared a lot and we ran missions daily, but there were some silver linings. Our primary role overseas was to train the Iraqi troops on bridge building and maintenance.
"I was eating a lot of 'food' of questionable origins. I tended to stay with the pastas and avoided the meat. Initially, we had a chow hall that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but as things started wrapping up, the chow hall closed and we had to rely on MREs. So anything sounded good after a month or so of MREs. I wanted actual food, like a steak or something savory.
"After we arrived back in Fort Hood, TX, we had some ceremonial things we had to do and then we got released. It was probably around 1am and I had been on a plane for 13 hours and was starving. I ended up at McDonald's. I ordered a 50-piece McNuggets and a large sweet tea with a gratuitous amount of honey mustard. It was delicious. It was the first time in a very long time where I wasn't rushed, or in fear of anything happening, and I finally had peace and enjoyed a meal. I was so happy to be back and to be able to eat what I wanted, when I wanted. It tasted like freedom, and I only ate about 30."
Mom's meatloaf is always satisfying
Robert L. Rimmer, Coast Guard
"My ship was support craft for the invasion of Hollandia, which is in the South Pacific by New Guinea, during World War II. We were in this area for two or three weeks because there were several battles going on. It was my first tour. My overall experience was very educational, and I appreciated being able to serve my country.
"We ate lots of Spam and chipped beef on toast. Our chef was a former cook in California, and he did a wonderful job of doctoring the food so that it was actually palatable.
"When I returned home, the first meal I wanted was my Mother's meatloaf, potatoes, gravy, homemade bread, and apple pie. We had it at home with my family. It lived up to my expectations 100%."
Chicken Parm is the taste of home
Vincent Otano, Army
"I was in Bagram, Afghanistan, and for the entire 12 months I was there the food was kinda scrappy. I was eating boiled chicken breast or MREs everyday.
"I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the food I wanted most was chicken Parm. My Mom made it all the time growing up and it always made me think of home. So when I got back, I got chicken Parm at a little mom-and-pop restaurant right off base. Every bite was exactly what I wanted it to be: perfect. Of course, I went to a bar with quite a few of my buddies who had deployed with me afterwards to celebrate."
An entire Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Pizza
Mitch Phillips, Marines
"You know, when I think of this kind of thing, my mind actually goes to boot camp. Because when I was in boot camp, I was starving. I was constantly looking for food. And while I was in there, I would write my family and tell them how much I missed pizza. My Mom actually sent me a newspaper clipping of an ad for Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust. I put that on my foot locker -- some people put girls or whatever up there, but I put pizza. My drilling instructor noticed it one day and called me over. He goes, 'Guess what I had for dinner last night.' I told him, 'I don’t know.' 'A stuffed crust pizza. And guess what I washed it down with? An ice-cold beer.' And you know, there’s nothing you can say there. You just have to stand there and take it. He was being such a dick, but I knew he liked me and was just messing with me.
"When my family came, I said, 'I want you to bring pizza.' And so after all the ceremonies, when they finally let us go, they had two large pizzas waiting for me. I ate one just by myself in the back of the truck. Of course they were Meat Lover’s Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust."
A huge steak is better than any MRE
Samuel Espinosa, Marines
"I was sent to Afghanistan, and usually ate MREs. The locals were kind enough to sometimes drop off home-cooked meals to our patrol base as a sign of appreciation, or just to be friendly. These meals were usually rice in some sort of tomato paste, with chunks of goat meat mixed in, and bread. One time we got goat soup, which was just the meat boiled in water.
"As cliche as it may be, when I got home, I settled for a nice steak with loaded mashed potatoes and vegetables at Texas Roadhouse. What I really wanted was carne asada with rice, beans, and fried plantains. Of course my Hispanic background played a big influence in that choice, but you don't find those kinds of meals in North Carolina, so steakhouse it was! I was with my parents and girlfriend, and after all the formalities with my family, my girlfriend and I headed to a local bar called Sharpshooters. The unit decided to hold an unofficial party, so of course I went to kick it with my friends.
"The food was great. Believe it or not, after eating MREs and foreign food you're not accustomed to, any meal is superb."
Kristin Hunt is a Food/Drink staff writer for Thrillist, and is way too much of a wuss to join the military, but would want her Mom's crispy chicken as her first meal back if she was deployed. Follow her at @kristin_hunt.