A lot of people have asked me “Is it difficult being vegan in the military?” To put it simply, I would say “sometimes”. It’s not really all that simple, though.
Since there aren’t many vegan soldiers in the U.S. Army I’ve had difficult times finding other people who have a common understanding of the type of diet I choose to have. Many higher-ranking officials say that “the Army doesn’t recognize veganism.” This is usually the response I get when I inquire about separate rations, which just means they cancel the charges for the meals at the chow hall, and the money would remain a part of my paycheck. As a soldier in the U.S. Army, if you are single and regardless if you eat at the chow hall or not, money is taken out of your monthly paycheck in order to pay for your meals. I’m still trying to find ways to make the military recognize vegans.
Sure, people could argue that I should just eat the iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes at the chow hall, but that is obviously not a suitable or sustainable meal plan for anybody. Since I am in the Infantry, the job is physically demanding more often than not. One thing I can appreciate is that I make a substantial amount of income to sustain my vegan diet. With that being mentioned, I can’t say that I’ve had a more difficult time with veganism than in U.S. Army Basic Training.
When I entered Army Basic Training, I knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t know that I would hate the very lifestyle that I enjoyed so much before I joined the military. I could say that I was starving throughout my entire Basic Training experience. I look back and wonder how I even made it through the rigorous training.
To Army standards, Basic Training doesn’t seem so strenuous, or difficult. I’m sure any average citizen would disagree though. There were times when I just wanted to give in and eat what the rest of the guys were eating. One time, I even picked up a slice of Canadian ham pizza and motioned it towards my mouth. I felt so hungry. Not to mention we were only given 3-5 minutes to eat. I don’t remember exactly, but it was too quick for me to even think. I had to sit properly, keep my eyes on my tray and remember that I was a vegan. I never forgot I was vegan, but the whole culture shock gave me a big sense of fear. That’s the whole purpose of Basic Training in its initial stages, anyway. I was scared the Drill Sergeants would ask me why I wasn’t eating, or assume I was a privileged teen acting picky. I didn’t want to be noticed. Then, something struck me! It was as if that little light bulb turned on. I said to myself “Whatever struggle you face here, no matter how difficult it is, remember that the animals on industrial farms have it worse. Remember that labor camps in North Korea are worse. Remember who you are and what you vowed you would never do is still a part of you today.” It was difficult, but I never let a piece of meat touch my paper tray ever again.
After I graduated Basic Training and Infantry OSUT in 2012, I was assigned my first duty station. There were many things I had to overcome while adjusting to my new duty station in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. One of the main concerns was “lack of protein."
We vegans tend to get this “lack of protein” as an insult from others in the civilian world, but in the U.S. Army, it’s almost seen as a matter of fact. I decided it was time to prove my duty station and the others around me that vegans are highly capable of accomplishing any Army standard, and in some cases, perform better than others. As I’ve trained my body; my ability to push myself, my stamina, my strength and energy have all increased sufficiently. One thing I made sure to do while accomplishing all of this was to not brag or boast about any of my achievements. I always strive to maintain humility because I try to live by: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.” This is one of the main reasons why I’m vegan. That saying solves any confusion.
I have proven myself to my peers and leadership, but can I prove to the U.S. Army that vegans are capable and that our lifestyle should be recognized by the military? To this day, I continue to have a few soldiers ask me where I get my protein from. I wouldn’t recommend answering sarcastically. I’ve had the feeling of wanting to reply in a rude way, but I just go with the assumption that they are actually curious as opposed to thinking they are ready to go in with the insults and doubt. I’d say about 85% of the time, people completely ignore what your answer and assume that you do not get enough nutrients and protein. I overcame that though when I started feeling better and when my body began to get into shape. I see great results, and I’m the one walking in my shoes, not them.
My vegan story goes something like this: In August 2010 I came across a video titled “Glass Walls”. I don’t think the footage would have made an impact on me if I hadn’t already liked animals so much. I remember when I was about 12; I saw the movie Finding Nemo and could not stop thinking about the classic line “Fish are friends, not food.” I think that saying stuck with me up until watching “Glass Walls” at the age of 17 when I became an ovo-vegetarian.
Then milk began to gross me out even though that was my favorite thing to drink before bed. A month later, the more I did research on vegetarianism, I would find horrible truths behind the egg industry. I didn’t stop eating eggs until I coincidentally searched Joaquin Phoenix on YouTube. I only searched him because I liked his performance in Signs. That search changed my life completely. I found one of the ultimate documentaries that truly unlock the meaning of awareness for the earth, Earthlings. I immediately became a vegan after watching it.
I don’t regret going vegan because my body is thanking me. My mind is clearer than ever, my body feels stronger, and I don’t get sick. I find that strange considering that people around me get sick quite often. The reason I decided to remain vegan in the military is because it keeps me disciplined, maintains my humanity, and strengthens my body for difficult tasks. I’m not big on forcing these vegan ideals onto other people, but if anyone is ever curious, I try not to go into a defensive mode. I try to explain to them what, how and why I live a vegan lifestyle. I think that’s the best way to go about things. Occasionally, I slip up and fall for an argument.
Even though my body reacted horribly during my plant-based diet in Basic Training, I have to
remember that it was not the diet; it was the deprivation of food. I believe if I ate the right amount of vegetables and fruits, I could have excelled exponentially during that 4-month training. I still get the occasional field problem where I don’t bring enough food and go a little bit hungry, but I have great leadership within my platoon that assists me with food when I need it.
My Platoon Sergeant, Platoon Leader and Team Leaders from the two other teams help me. My stance on this is that I want the U.S. military, in general, to consider veganism a special way of living until they have vegan options available throughout the entire organization. Religious specialties such as Muslim and Judaism are considered “special cases” and get separate rations, but vegans are not considered in the same light. I feel like I’m the only one in the military that actually wants vegan food to be an option. More variety at the salad bar would be a big step. If there is anyone else out there with a similar dilemma, please join in on this fight for vegan-lifestyle awareness in the military. It’s for you, me, the animals and the planet that we live on.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My name is (Specialist) Alexander Contreras, but Alex is preferred. I'm currently 20 years old, and I'm an 11B Team Leader in a Scout platoon under the branch of the U.S. Army. I joined the United States Army in 2012. I currently live in one of the coldest states in America, beautiful Alaska. I'm from the good old south, which some might disagree, Houston (Channelview), Texas. I became vegan in August of 2010 after one month of being an ovo-vegetatrian. Animals are my reason for living vegan, health comes second to that. My aspirations are to become an actor and an influential person that helps to spread the message of animal welfare. I am currently studying Japanese(Lvl2. Beginner), Korean(Lvl1. Beginner) and Spanish(Lvl5 Intermediate-low).