Memoirs of a Modern-Day Ksatriya - Part Three
Posted June 25, 2004
Camp Anaconda, Iraq - Our new home
Mechanics tend to be an overworked and under-appreciated force in the military, and as such, prefer to stick together on their own. Wanting to separate ourselves from the rest of our unit, we moved from the tents we had been in for the past couple of weeks to the motor pool in which we worked.
The motor pool was a large concrete building with two bays that had previously been used by the mechanics of Saddam Hussein's army. The doors and windows of both bays had been blown out when the camp was bombed by coalition forces during the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. With the exception of a few cracks in the ceiling and some holes in the walls, the building seemed structurally sound, and it was safer than a tent.
There was still some old Iraqi equipment left in the bays and everything was covered with droppings and feathers from the pigeons that inhabited the building. Around the back of the shop was a separate room that was said to have been used by the former regime to store their dead. True or not (and most probably not), this miserable place embodied the essence of tama guna.
I set up a cot between two rows of cans stacked six feet high, oil on one side and transmission fluid on the other, and that's where I slept.
One thing you learn in the military is how to surrender. You have no choice. You take shelter in the fact that everything is temporary, a fact that is easily understood by a soldier.
Before long, we had acquired enough wood and supplies to construct little rooms. Four walls and a night table was a welcomed step up from the makeshift cubicles we were all so eager to abandon. I fished out some devotional pictures I had clipped from some old issues of Back to Godhead and pinned them to the walls. At least Krsna was with me. These other guys had nothing.
Within a few weeks, we had adopted a somewhat regulated routine:
5:00 a.m. - Wake up
5:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. - Physical training
6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. - Personal hygiene
7:30 a.m. - Breakfast
9:00 a.m. - Beginning of work day
Noon to 1:00 p.m. - Lunch
7:00 p.m. - Dinner (Work day ends unless there's a big job to do)
That was our schedule every day, with half-days on Sunday.
The temperature outside hadn't begun to heat up yet, so working outdoors all day wasn't too bad, except for having rocks jabbing into our backs every time we had to crawl under a truck. We worked and slept, and the first couple months passed.
It was a struggle finding something to eat every day. The lack of vegetarian options was astounding, and when there was something, it was more than likely overcooked and mushy, and completely sub-standard to anything I had ever put in my mouth. Usually, there were two vegetables offered, but at least one of them was inedible, either because a spoon from the neighboring shrimp creole was laying atop the vegetables or the vegetables themselves were cooked with meat (as is the case with spinach and green beans, which are almost always cooked in bacon grease).
Even by meat-eating standards, the food was formidable. Everything was a putrid gray, as if all the nutrition had just been sucked right out. Had I not already been a vegetarian, this vile display of grub would have definitely converted me.
Of course, there was always a huge variety of fish, fowl, cattle and swine. The buffet was a meat-eaters paradise. On any given day, one could, and usually did, get a hamburger, fried chicken, a hot dog, beef stew and some fish, all at the same time! The only time I had ever heard of that much meat on one plate was when Pope John Paul II indulged in a feast of quail, lamb, veal and turtle soup, and rinsed it down with a glass of red wine.
Aside from the one vegetable I could eat, there was a fairly decent salad bar. There wasn't always lettuce, and when there was, it was exclusively Iceberg, but there was a pretty good selection of vegetables. They weren't fresh, but they made a suitable salad. All of the salad dressings were made with egg, so I ate it dry.
There was also a pasta bar that stocked spaghetti and tomato sauce. Bread was also available, as well as an occasional unripened fruit and potato chips.
Sundays were steak and lobster day, which replaced anything I was usually able to eat during the week. If you could imagine being tightly squeezed between two people as they gorge themselves, ripping the flesh of a lobster's carcass from it's shell while steak juice dribbles down their chins, and having to smell the stench of their meal as you try to stomach your own as quickly as possible, you would have a pretty good understanding of steak and lobster day.
They often served “vegetarian vegetable soup” which, not surprisingly, was made with chicken stock. Apparently, the manager never learned the difference between chickens and vegetables, and was not at all amused when I attempted to explain it to her.
Mornings were the exception. I was able to eat cereal with milk, orange juice, peanut butter and fruit (sometimes). Breakfast was my main meal and I ate as much as I could, and took as much as I could for later.
My typical daily menu was:
Breakfast - cereal, milk, orange juice, and an occasional fruit
Lunch - pasta and salad
Dinner - pasta and salad
It seems alright for one day's eating, but following such a diet for weeks on end takes it's toll. I had become weak and lethargic, and my stomach was always sour. The lack of vitamins had lowered my immune system and I couldn't sustain any strength due to my extremely low protein intake. I had also lost two pant sizes-worth of weight.
My parents and colleagues encouraged me to eat meat. They didn't understand how ridiculous that sounded to me. I had been vegetarian since I was fifteen; half my life.
I acquired some jars of peanut butter and jelly and some bread from an acquaintance who worked at the DFAC (Dining Facility), and it provided me another alternative to pasta and salad, as well as a steady source of protein. But pasta and peanut butter can only keep you going for so long.
I asked my commander if any special arrangements could be made to provide me with adequate food, but he suggested I just eat MREs or start eating meat. I told him that I would never eat meat regardless of the situation.
Finally, my package came.
My wife had sent me a box of food that could be easily cooked, a portable electric burner, textured vegetable protein and vegetarian vitamin supplements. She even sent me some spices. Soon after, I received packages from my mother, my sister and some of my godsiblings. I now had all kinds of meals to make and snacks to munch on, and my health quickly recovered.
I also obtained a mini refrigerator that had been discarded. It was broken, but I re-wired it and got it working. Soon, I had milk and juice in there and was rarely going to the chow hall at all, except to stock up on groceries and drop some fruit prasadam off at the salad bar.
I built a wooden counter in my room and set up my kitchen. At last, I could cook my own food and offer it. Krsna was definitely setting me up with a tolerable situation and, more than ever before, I could begin to understand just how dependent on Him I was.