NO PIECE OF American military equipment in the Persian Gulf war seemed to take more of a pounding than MREs, the new generation of field rations.
They were an easy target -- good for a laugh in dismal surroundings. The high-tech "Meal, Ready-to-Eat," which comes in a flat, brown plastic pouch that weighs 1 1/2 pounds, was ridiculed by soldiers as "Meal, Rejected by Everyone." The official name contains three separate lies, some soldiers joked.
Raymond Mansur, chief of the combat rations section at the Army's Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., has heard it all before. Sure, he takes offense, says Mansur, who heads the research group that developed the new rations and continues to look for ways to satisfy the soldier's palate while providing enough fuel for battle.
"We're buying and using millions of these. They can't be all that bad," Mansur says. "We're not standing still on these meals," he adds, referring to plans to add pizza, chow mein, burritos and other more exotic "entrees" to the standard fare of beef, chicken and ham dishes.
Throughout the Persian Gulf war and the buildup that preceded it, the military shipped as many as 25 million MREs to the desert each month.
And now the Army is trying to counter the jokes with some Madison Avenue-like marketing of its own.
Public affairs officials with the Army Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va., shot a television commercial last week at Aberdeen Proving Ground to promote MREs among the troops.
Another commercial was shot last fall at the proving ground in Harford County, a major research and test site for tanks and nearly every other piece of equipment soldiers use.
Both commercials are to be aired in the coming months on the Armed Forces television network, which is seen by military personnel in Europe, Latin America, Japan and elsewhere abroad. The military has no means of airing the commercials in the United States. Posters bearing messages similar to the commercials are to be distributed to military bases.
The spots are also meant to convey a message: The food is darned good, under the circumstances, the Army contends. It will keep a soldier supplied with essential nutrients, it comes in lightweight, durable packages that keep for up to three years, and researchers are always looking for ways to make it better, Mansur and his colleagues say.
Officials acknowledge that the commercials are somewhat unorthodox for an armed service not known for humor or sensitivity to the taste buds of soldiers.
In the 60-second spot shot last week in the kitchen of a private home in the town of Aberdeen, actress Rosemary Knower plays the part of "the mother from hell," as the film crew dubbed the character.
She stomps around wearing curlers, a hideous-looking flowered shirt and pink polyester pants and saying to her son: "What do you mean you want barbecued beef, apple sauce, crackers and jelly and a chocolate-covered brownie? You want that -- join the Army."
"In my house, buster," she barks, "you get what I fix." Then she slops a mixture of grits and okra on a plate.
"MREs. Just eat it," a narrator says, in a takeoff of a popular Nike shoe commercial. The Army sought out Nike spokesman and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson for a commercial, but a football injury, among other things, prevented him from accepting.
In the spot shot last fall, a well-dressed waiter tramps across a makeshift battlefield, dodging machine gun fire, exploding artillery rounds, tanks and the like. He reaches a foxhole and presents a grimy-looking grunt with filet mignon on a silver platter. "No, thanks," says the grunt. "I'd rather have an MRE."
A narrator purrs, "New, improved MREs. They're better. They really are."
"We're not apologizing" for MREs with the advertising campaign, says Col. Doug Rogers, a public affairs officer for the Army Materiel Command. "We're not trying to make them out to be something they aren't.
"What we're trying to do is show the soldier that we accept the [negative] comments in the vein they're intended."
Rogers says the dozens of researchers at the Natick center "are vTC on the edge of technology." The processing and packaging methods that keep the food safe from contamination can have "significant" uses for supplying emergency rations following major disasters or in aiding people in remote, famine-stricken areas, he says.
MREs can be heated in a variety of ways -- including a special chemical process or by heat generated from vehicle radiators or defroster vents -- or they can be eaten cold. They are most often used by troops on maneuvers who have little access to field kitchens or more conventional means of preparing food.
They were fielded in 1980. The Army says they are a vast improvement over the old C rations, which were canned. The menu has been upgraded and expanded a number of times over the past 10 years, Mansur and other officials say. Each meal provides about 1,300 calories.
"We've compared them to other countries' rations," Mansur says, and the MREs "come out way ahead."