The Wild Science of Military MRE Meals



It’s hard to think of a more beloved — and sometimes hated — cultural touchstone in the military than MRE meals, or meals ready to eat. They’ve been around since the C-Rations of World War II and beyond, and have for decades offered a touch of comfort and a taste of home — albeit a highly engineered one that can last for years at high temperatures without spoiling. You can find MRE cookbooks that will tell you how to turn drink mix and generic toaster pastries into gourmet desserts, and there are scores of YouTube videos dedicated to taste-testing chili mac and the prized jalapeno cheese spread.

Well, it turns out there’s a lot of science that goes into each one of these compact rations packs, and sometimes the development of a new MRE menu item — such as the coveted pepperoni pizza slice — requires actual technological breakthrough. Today, we’ll talk to two people from the Combat Feeding Directorate in Natick, Massachusetts: Lauren Oleksyk, team leader for food engineering, who holds two patents in revolutionary food science, and David Accetta, an Army military historian and public affairs officer at the directorate.

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Mentioned in this episode:

MREs

MRE Pizza

The Combat Feeding Directorate

Close Combat Assault Rations

C-Rations

Vietnam War

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I’m your host, Hope Hodge Seck. It’s hard to think of a more beloved — and sometimes hated — cultural touchstone in the military than meals ready to eat, or MREs. They’ve been around since the C-rations of World War II and beyond, and have for decades offered a touch of comfort and a taste of home, albeit a highly engineered one that can last for years at high temperatures without spoiling. You can find MRE cookbooks that will tell you how to turn drink mix and generic toaster pastries into gourmet desserts, and there are scores of YouTube videos dedicated to taste-testing chili mac and the prized jalapeno cheese spread. Well, it turns out there’s a lot of science that goes into each one of these compact rations packs. And sometimes the development of a new MRE menu item, such as the coveted pepperoni pizza slice requires actual technological breakthrough. Today we’ll talk to two people from the Combat Feeding Directorate in Natick, Massachusetts: Lauren Oleksyk, team leader for food engineering, who holds two patents in revolutionary food science, and David Accetta, an Army military historian and public affairs officer at the directorate. Welcome to the show.

Lauren Oleksyk 1:10

Hello.

David Accetta 1:11

Hi, thank you very much for having us.

Hope Hodge Seck 1:14

So, Lauren, I am so interested in this really unique job that you have. So how did you end up as the team leader of food engineering, basically one of the top MRE developers for the military? Do you start taking the science career path to get here? Or do you get here through a love of the culinary arts? Or both? What was it for you?

Lauren Oleksyk 1:39

For me, it was a little of both. I specifically sought a career in the combat feeding division. While I was still in college, I majored in food science at a local university and started working at the soldier center as an intern. But I would say my interest in food science actually began as a child. I came from a large family and we had an enormous garden. So we canned most of our fruits and vegetables. And I learned very early on about food preservation, and my neighbors were dairy farmers. So my first job as a teen was in the milk-processing field. So I think I developed an early interest in that and also in nutrition and packaging, and I love to cook. So a career in food science was a perfect fit for me.

Hope Hodge Seck 2:24

When did you encounter your first MRE? or How did you get interested in the military side of boot development in the first place?

Lauren Oleksyk 2:32

Well, I interned at a soldier center in the combat feeding division, and I was immediately drawn to the science and technology side of ration development. And one of my first tasks there was to develop cereal bars for survival rations. You know, I had some product development experience when I was in college. But this was my first real hands on experience with product development. And I assumed it would be not too difficult, you know, I develop a cereal bar and test it out, and it will be ready to go. And I quickly learned all about the military constraints and requirements for rations and realize that this was really a unique job.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:12

Can you give a rundown on what those requirements and constraints are?

Lauren Oleksyk 3:16

Probably the most difficult challenge is, rations have to withstand a three-year shelf life. So that’s at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s a long time that these foods have to be shelf-stable and not spoil. They also have to be extremely compact and lightweight and durable enough to survive airdrop, they have to withstand extreme climatic changes that range from minus 60 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. So our packaging has to be really, really durable to protect rations for that long of a period of time. And we have nutritional requirements that are mandated by the Office of the Surgeon General. Also we have to consider operational scenarios. Where will these rations be issued? This is a lot to consider. It’s not as simple as if you were developing a food for the commercial market.

Hope Hodge Seck 4:05

So the cereal bar was it a hit? Did it meet the requirement? Is it still out there in the world.

Lauren Oleksyk 4:11

It is still a component of survival rations. These rations have very, very long shelf life requirements, sometimes in excess of three years. And the cereal bars are still packaged in that ration, but it’s a special-purpose ration and it’s not readily used unless it needs to be. There’s less variety in that type of ration compared to the MRE.

Hope Hodge Seck 4:31

And I’m not sure how long you’ve been at the combat feeding directorate. But what other MRE recipes have you created or developed since you got there?

Lauren Oleksyk 4:40

I’ve been there a long time. It’s going on 37 years now.

Hope Hodge Seck 4:44

Oh my goodness.

Lauren Oleksyk 4:46

Yeah. And over the years, I was involved in the development of a few MRE items. One in particular, I have a co-patent on the MRE shelf-stable bread, and this bread is stable for three years due to a series of what we call hurdle technologies that keep the bread from staling or spoiling. So this product and technologies that we use to stabilize it form the basis of several other big items in the MRE. To this day, things like the shelf-stable pizza that you’ve heard about, and shelf-stable sandwiches that are in some of our other rations.

Hope Hodge Seck 5:22

That’s incredible. Can you go through what those technologies are that keep the bread for example, from going stale or otherwise spoiling?

Lauren Oleksyk 5:32

The technologies used for bread and baked goods are, we call them hurdle technologies. And this is a way to preserve foods that have intermediate moisture contents without having to subject them to a thermal sterilization process. Essentially, you introduce hurdles to microbial growth. And you do that by using specific ingredients that control water activity that control the product’s pH, control the moisture content, in the case of something like a shelf-stable pizza, it would control the migration of moisture from one part of the food to another, because you might have a lot of components. Like in the case of the pizza, you have the dough, the sauce, the cheese, the toppings, and they all have different moisture contents and water activity. So if you don’t control how that migrates from piece to piece, you are going to introduce the opportunity for microbial spoilage. So we use ingredients, and we also control the headspace in the package. And everything we can do to prevent that spoilage. And we test the safety of the food throughout its three-year shelf life to confirm that it’s safe to consume and nothing will grow. That’s an example of a hurdle technology. And it’s employed in different ways for different intermediate moisture products.

Hope Hodge Seck 6:51

And I know this MRE pizza slice pepperoni pizza slice, I’ve actually tried it, it came out a few years ago, and it was sort of the holy grail of MRE. And as I understand, was a highly requested item since its release. Have you tracked soldier service member feedback? And what are you hearing about how well it’s going over in the field?

Lauren Oleksyk 7:12

Well, we should actually start getting that data soon. It was incorporated into the MRE in 2018, and really first fielded around 2019. Every year, we actually do field tests and evaluation with soldiers and we get that feedback from them. So this will be the first year that we actually can start collecting data on the fielded Pizza to assess how well it’s accepted. But prior to it going into the MRE, we did a number of field evaluations on just that item like all MRE components. It had to be warfighter-tested and approved before it went into the ration. And the pizza definitely was a highly accepted product. They had been asking for it for years, and it was very well received. So we’re hoping that the field test results going forward confirm that, and we’ll keep a close eye on it.

Hope Hodge Seck 8:02

What sort of feedback do you solicit in these surveys that you’re talking about getting the data back from?

Lauren Oleksyk 8:07

We ask them to rate the acceptability of the components, especially if we’re testing new prototypes. So they’re given a scale from one to nine, and they rank how well they like the product. We also do consumption studies, where we measure how much of each item they eat, and how much they throw away, so we can assess whether something is under-consumed. And if we see that trend, we’ll ask them questions regarding that: why aren’t they consuming it? And then every year, based on that data, we make decisions on whether something’s retired from the MRE or replaced with something else. And a lot of times the demographics might change of the military. So things that were well loved by warfighters, you know, back in the ’70s and ’80s are not well-liked by you know, some of the military personnel today who might prefer different foods that reflect more of what they ate when they were growing up.

Hope Hodge Seck 9:03

I know for example, cigarettes are no longer included in MREs and they were historically included in combat rations many years ago. But how often our items are tired and what are some of the most recent items to be retired?

Lauren Oleksyk 9:17

Things that were very popular years ago like chicken a la king, ham and lima beans to go way back, those things were retired, and today we have things like burritos and vegetarian options, things that they request and are much more familiar with — the MRE pizza. But in terms of what’s taken in and out every year, it varies.

David Accetta 9:35

It’s all based on the soldiers and feedback and and it’s actually not just soldiers. We also do the surveys with Marines, because the Army and the Marine Corps are the primary consumers of the MREs. So we need to get their feedback and ask them what do they like, what they don’t like, and then what they don’t like, gets retired, and we try to figure out what they do like, which is how we got to the pizza. And then a lot of the other things that are in MREs — If you looked at the menu from today versus the menus from the early 80s, when they first came out, you’ll see great differences in the entrees. Because the original MREs were pretty much based on traditional American comfort food, the same way that the previous series of rations, meal combat-individual, and before that the Army C-rations. You know, as we did more surveys and got more feedback from military personnel, we found out what they liked and what they didn’t like. And Lauren alluded to it when she said things that they remember growing up, and you’ve got so much more diversity in the Army now, you’ve got people from all different ethnic backgrounds. So there’s a lot of different types of food. It’s not just standard American comfort food, it’s not pot roast, and it’s not those kind of things anymore.

Hope Hodge Seck 11:01

So one of my favorite things about MREs, henever I’ve had the chance to eat them downrange is all the little side items that they come with, all the little packages you can open and the jalapeno cheese spread and the snacks for later. It’s really fun opening them up and seeing all the items that are inside and how they all work together. And you know, of course there are those people who make little recipes in the field with whatever they have or trade them back and forth. So how does a new complete MRE menu come about? And what are sort of the parameters for ensuring complementarity of taste and nutritional balance and appeal for everything that’s in the package as a whole, developing a new menu?

Lauren Oleksyk 11:47

We consider three things really. The first one are the warfighters’ recommendations and their desires, you know, and the MRE pizza is an example of that. But secondly, and probably more importantly, we have to think about military requirements and the operational scenario where the ration will be used. And then lastly, we look at leading-edge food science and packaging technologies, because sometimes the science itself will bring us in a direction that says we can develop something that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to be developed before, because it’s a new technology that we can utilize. In addition to the three-year shelf life requirement for a new menu, we have nutritional guidelines that we have to follow. So there might be a nutrient that’s lacking in a menu. And so we’ll develop a food that specifically has that nutrient in it. So that as a whole when you put all those components together, the MRE is nutritionally complete. As far as taste and palatability, the combat feeding division is outfitted with a sensory lab, where technically trained panelists can examine the foods’ organoleptic properties. So this would include the appearance odor, flavor, texture, and overall quality. And we do that over the duration of the product shelf life. So we’ll rate the products on a scale and we try to achieve a score above a six. So you know,one being dislike, nine being like. And we’ll try to get a six at the end of a product shelf life to ensure that it’s acceptable once it’s issued, six or better. So that’s kind of our internal goal. But we also utilize general consumer panels who rate a new product based on just a matter of how much they like it. They don’t really look at the technical aspects of the food, but whether they like it or not. And then we have military human research volunteers that are located at soldier center. And we solicit them to test new prototypes and to participate in focus groups to get their feedback. And then after we do all of that is when we’ll conduct our annual or biannual field tests with military personnel. And that’s where every new MRE component must be tested and accepted before it will go into a ration.

Hope Hodge Seck 13:52

When you’re talking about this technical expert panelists, who are those people?

Lauren Oleksyk 13:57

They are primarily food technologists, they’ve undergone specific training in sensory evaluation. So we all have varied thresholds where we can pick up very subtle changes in flavors and odors. And we have a good range of us so they look across you know, people who have a very low threshold for salt, say. Some others might have a very low threshold for rancidity, or bitterness. And so combined, this group of technical panelists really can do a thorough evaluation of foods. And we’ll do it not only when a food is first developed, but even after it’s been stored for three years.

Hope Hodge Seck 14:35

That’s fascinating. So you talked about the hurdle technologies that led to bread and then to pizza, which was sort of like this revelation. Are there current scientific food challenges that you’re currently working through to pave the way to develop more items?

Lauren Oleksyk 14:53

Yes, there are. And one of the reasons is we’re very focused right now on the fact that soldiers and units might be in environments where they have to go longer without resupply. So right now, we’re very focused on reducing the logistics burden by reducing the weight and size of rations so that soldiers in small units can carry more. And this is becoming critically important. And it’s it’s dictating the development of smaller and more compact, nutrient-dense foods. So some of the technologies we’re really advancing right now are drying technologies to reduce the weight of foods, and compression technologies to reduce the volume of foods. And that’s includes things like vacuum microwave drying, and ultrasonic agglomeration, which is a compression technology. And sometimes we’re developing new prototypes, using a combination of those two technologies to make these very nutrient-dense, compact foods, in some cases can actually be entire meal replacement bars.

Hope Hodge Seck 15:56

The way you’re describing it, immediately, what comes to mind is the rations that are sent to space with astronauts, when you’re talking about drying and making things as late as they possibly can be. Are there any similarities there?

Lauren Oleksyk 16:10

Yes, very similar requirements. In fact, we collaborate with NASA, and have worked with them on many dense and compact items such as meal replacement bars that they’re considering for their menus for the mission to Mars. And also, we work with them on developing entrees that are used at the International Space Station. So the similarities and requirements for astronauts and military personnel are very, very similar. And in fact, NASA has long shelf-life requirements too, even longer than military rations in some case, but lightweight products in very dense products are required by both.

Hope Hodge Seck 16:50

How soon might we see a meal replacement bar out in the field and fully developed and being used by troops on the go?

Lauren Oleksyk 16:58

We’re working on a new ration called the close combat assault ration. This is a ration that’s designed to be extremely lightweight and compact. So we’re developing these nutrient-dense bars. Now they’re in the prototype stage for the close combat assault ration that’s going to be field-tested soon. Some of the first prototypes will be field-tested in the near future, the bars that we’re looking at for that ration are not necessarily full meal replacement bars. But they using the technology for drying and compression that enable us to make a full meal replacement bar if needed.

Hope Hodge Seck 17:34

And how much lighter it might these rations be than the typical MRE package?

Lauren Oleksyk 17:39

The ration components themselves, it depends on how much moisture you remove. But we’ve achieved anywhere between 40 to 70% decrease in weight on a component level, because essentially, you’re just taking the fresh food and you’re removing the moisture, but you can dial in how much you want to remove for palatability purposes. We know that war fighters don’t necessarily want to consume all dry bars. So we want to be able to offer a variety of moistures in these products so that it’s something they want to consume. So it depends, you know, the weight reductions depend, but we have metrics and goals to achieve about a 40% reduction in weight. And we can achieve the same and volume if we compress the product as well.

Hope Hodge Seck 18:27

As we’re talking about many development. I know in the last couple of decades, there’s a lot more service members who want to eat, say keto, or paleo, even Whole 30 — these diets that are really dependent on protein and vegetables and probably really hard to sustain in the field. And I’m sure there are things that it’s just like, yeah, there’s no way to make shelf-stable rations that fit that bill. But are you looking at any ways to develop additional menus that cater to people who have specific food requirements like these, or want to, I guess, eat a little bit more whole food or protein-heavy, whatever the case may be?

Lauren Oleksyk 19:12

With regard to the MRE, there is no requirement from the military services to develop keto or paleo menus. All the menus in the MREs have to meet the nutritional standards for operational rations. You know, and as I mentioned, that was that’s mandated by the Office of the Surgeon General. But we do listen to some of their desires for this for certain types of foods. And one example of that is we currently have four vegetarian meals in the MRE out of the 24 menus. Four of them are vegetarian, two new vegetarian entrees were approved for the latest MRE: cheese pizza and the Mexican-style rice and bean bowl. And every every ration is labeled in accordance with FDA regulations so individual soldiers can see the list of ingredients and they can determine for themselves, you know whether it’s a product that they want to consume, but in general, you know, we want them to consume the entire MRE, because that is a nutritionally complete ration and it will optimize their performance and health if they consume it all.

Hope Hodge Seck 20:14

In my journeys around the internet, I have found this trove of MRE enthusiasts who live on places like YouTube, where they’ll buy old MREs that are decades old and taste-test them or make Top Chef-style recipes, combining different ingredients, using the Kool-Aid powder and the, you know, you name it just really mixing things up. So do you ever kind of watch those YouTube videos? Or pay attention to that little subculture? And do the fans of MREs who kind of live out in the civilian world and are just interested in these things, do they ever inspire you in your work?

Lauren Oleksyk 20:51

I do watch those. I love those videos, they make me laugh, first of all, but I also think it’s so fun to see how creative they get with the types of things they make. I read the comments, I find the comments are very interesting and helpful. And I will bring, when I read something like that, I will have little brainstorm sessions at work. And we’ll talk about what people think and you know, some of the ideas that come from those videos in terms of new product lines. So yes, I do watch them. And a lot of times, you know, if they’re a positive review, it can be actually somewhat rewarding to know that you were part of the development of those products, I see that a lot with the flameless ration heater that they show inside the MRE, that was a development that — I was one of the original developers of the flameless ration heater. And even though it’s not a food item, it allows soldiers to actually have a hot meal now in the field, where before 1992, they didn’t always have a way to heat their entrees. So a lot of those YouTube videos will show people using the flameless ration heater and heating up their entree and it’s quite enjoyable to watch them.

Hope Hodge Seck 22:03

I love that so much.

David Accetta 22:05

The flameless ration heater was a huge, huge development that to help soldiers — well, all troops in the field. You know, having been in the Army for a long time, before flameless ration heaters, you have to come up with creative ways to to heat your food. Otherwise, you know, your food was essentially the same temperature as it was outside, whether that was 40 degrees or 70 degrees. The flameless ration heater made a huge difference to the morale of troops, because it gave them the ability to have hot food anywhere that they were. So they didn’t have to rely on using the heat from the engine of the vehicle that you happen to be next to, or finding some other creative way to heat up your MRE components without making a fire.

Hope Hodge Seck 22:55

Something that still gives troops a lot of joy is the instructions that those heaters come with. And the fact that they tell whoever is eating the MRE to put the whole package, balance it on “a rock or something” are the words that people really get a kick out of. Do you know how that particular bit of instruction that language came about?

Lauren Oleksyk 23:17

Yes, I happen to know that. Since we developed the flameless ration heater, we also developed the instructions that are on the bag. And initially that when we were designing the pictograms that you see on the package itself, we were trying to come up with an object that you lean the flameless ration heater on top of, at an angle, which helps it to heat faster. And we couldn’t think of an object. And my colleague next to me said, well, let’s just use the rock or something in the picture. And we did we put a rock and we called it the “rock or something” as a joke. And we left it in because people thought it was funny. And it actually brought some humor to the field. So we decided over the long term to leave it in there and we still hear about it all the time.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:04

That is so amazing.

Lauren Oleksyk 24:06

Yeah.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:06

So I do have to ask about a little bit more MRE myths and legends. Anyone who’s ever been out in the field is eating these and so they get talked about a lot and there are all these rumors that are flying around. First of all, the gum that comes with the current mre, they say it’s a laxative to keep things moving along. Is there any truth in that rumor?

David Accetta 24:27

Absolutely not.

Lauren Oleksyk 24:30

The gum at one point had a xylitol component which can have in some people a laxative effect, but it was it’s not intentionally in the MRE to to serve as a laxative. So yes, that is not exactly true.

David Accetta 24:46

The xylitol in the gum is to help prevent tooth decay. So it was designed for situations where you didn’t have the ability to brush your teeth. You could chew the gum and then that would help with the health of your teeth in the field.

Hope Hodge Seck 25:05

So there was a hidden benefit, but it was not what people were thinking.

Lauren Oleksyk 25:09

Correct.

Hope Hodge Seck 25:10

Other one that I think spans your career is even back in the ’90s, maybe even in the early 2000s, maybe even longer — Charms candy, were part of some MRE menus and those were notorious for being bad luck. I think even in the Generation Kill miniseries, they come across the Charms dump, where everyone’s just gotten the Charms out of their MRIs to be on the safe side. So do you know anything about how that charms rumor came about? And when Charm stopped being part of the MRE?

Lauren Oleksyk 25:42

I’m not sure when exactly they were removed, they are no longer in the MRE today. And I know, I’ve heard of the curse of the Charms. Back in the day. If a warfighter received a ration with Charms in it, they would deem to bring bad luck, so they would get rid of them. I’ve heard stories of soldiers holding bags out to collect everyone’s Charms at feeding time to get rid of. David might have more experience with that.

David Accetta 26:08

Yeah, we don’t really have a good idea of exactly when or how Charms became associated with bad luck. But I mean, I do remember hearing that, that if you ate the Charms when you were in field, say in a training environment, then that would guarantee that it would rain on you. And then later on, as we got into more combat operations in different parts of the world, they became associated with soldiers getting injured or killed. Which is why some troops were very adamant about not having the Charms and getting rid of them as soon as they could. I think some of that might have to do with the popularity or lack of popularity of the Charms, of hard candy. So those had been part of military rations for a long time going back to World War II. And I kind of think personally that, generations later, troops were just not all that fond of hard candy, and just didn’t want to eat them, you know, whereas it was probably much more popular in the ’40s and ’50s.

Hope Hodge Seck 27:21

Makes sense. It’s good to get to get to the bottom of that one. I could talk to you all for hours. I think this is really fascinating stuff. And I love the work that you do. But I know we have to wrap up. So my final question is for each of you. What is your favorite MRE menu and why?

Lauren Oleksyk 27:39

Okay, well, for me, it’s the MRE pepperoni pizza, of course, partly because my team is the team that developed the item but also because I love pizza. And I also like the vegetarian taco pasta. So those are my two favorites.

Hope Hodge Seck 27:54

Hmm.

David Accetta 27:55

I have, I think very strange sense of taste. And that’s what most people would politely describe it. My favorite MRE was the omelet with ham. And that was also my favorite of the meal combat-individuals and the canned rations. And that was really good for me because most people didn’t like either one of those. So I could always trade whatever I had for that one. Now of the of the newer-generation MREs, I like the cheese tortellini, it’s even though it’s a vegetarian meal and I’m not a vegetarian. I like the cheese tortellini. And just as a point of trivia, the only ration I mean, the only entree that is still in the MRE menu from the original menu is the spaghetti. And everybody likes the spaghetti and during Desert Storm and going into Iraq in in 2003, as well, that one was really popular and I remember soldiers fighting over who was going to get the spaghetti because they like the spaghetti and that one also came with M&Ms. So that was a jackpot if you pull the the spaghetti MRE out of the box.

Hope Hodge Seck 29:19

Love it, jackpot indeed. Well, I have a very fun memory of being very hungry on a late night in Afghanistan and finding a first strike ration that had a pepperoni sandwich in it, and it tasted just so good. And I don’t think anything will ever taste as good as that item did.

David Accetta 29:39

And that is all due to the work that Lauren and her team did with the shelf-stable bread that enabled the pepperoni sandwich. But you’re exactly right. And we tell people that because you mentioned the the MRE videos on the internet and you know, MREs get a lot of criticism. Not only from troops, but also from civilians who may pick one up somewhere and they eat it. And they’re not designed to be gourmet food. And you know, what we like to tell people is that the true benefit of an MRE can’t be found if you’re sitting in your kitchen or your living room eating it. The benefit of an MRE is when you’re cold, wet, tired and hungry, sitting in the dark in the rain on a mountainside in Afghanistan. And you can open up an MRE and you can have hot food, and you can have something that reminds you of home and have better times and that’s really what the benefits of the MRE are and how you can really appreciate them.

Hope Hodge Seck 30:42

Well, Lauren, and David, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

David Accetta 30:46

Thank you. Great being here.

Hope Hodge Seck 30:57

Well, I don’t know about you, but that episode made me hungry. I’ll take the barbecue beef MRE: It comes with a side of black beans and shelf-stable tortillas and that delicious jalapeno cheese. Do you have any favorite memory recipes or stories about how you enjoy them in the field? Are there any combat ration myths and rumors that we didn’t get to on today’s episode? Hit me up at podcast@military.com and let me know. Hit subscribe on the show today, and if you use Apple podcasts, please do leave a rating and review. And until next time, remember to check out Military.com for all the information and news you need about your military community.

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