Being "The Vegan" Aboard an Aircraft Carrier
I didn’t expect the Navy would change its meal system for me.
Salad Cruise by Vivienne Strauss
I love eating plant-based, and I’ve never found anything that made me feel so good in so many ways. I feel healthy, and I get to help the environment and animals—wins all around! Navy or not, I was committed to keeping this crucial element of my well-being.
My first dietary hurdle was to negotiate the food lines in basic training. The mess hall’s main line offered hot dishes—animal protein, carbohydrate, and a hot vegetable that wasn’t vegan. So I spent the eight weeks living off of the salad bar. For breakfast, I had oatmeal with peanut butter and fruit. For lunch and dinner, I had a raw vegetable salad with balsamic vinaigrette and fruit. Pretty boring, but hey, even the omnivores were bored. For eight weeks we all suffered together, both in training and in the mess hall, but we made it through. I came out of basic training still a vegan.
I originally kept my plant-based lifestyle from my peers because I wasn’t jazzed about spending the next four years hearing, “You’re vegan? That’s weird.” “I could never live without steak!” or “You’re not getting enough nutrients.” But people figured it out by watching my meticulous daily selections. And so the vegan jokes began (in a lighthearted and harmless way). People also sincerely wanted to know how I was going to maintain a vegan diet aboard ship. Everyone told me it could not be done.
Preparing to Deploy
I knew going into my deployment that I didn’t just want to survive—I wanted to thrive. After all, I would be aboard ship for six months. I also knew my job aboard the USS Carl Vinson would be to help maintain the electronics on a squadron of jets known as Growlers, and that meant carrying heavy equipment up and down steep stairwells and across a flight deck the length of a football field—all while jets were a constant flurry of taxiing, takeoffs, and landings. I needed to ensure that I gave myself the nutrients to work efficiently and safely. And I wanted to have the energy to continue my normal stress-relieving activities of CrossFit, cardio, and yoga.
First, I revved up my self-confidence. Mindset would be critical. I acknowledged the fact that I had successfully eaten plant-based in boot camp. I also acknowledged that the naysaying was coming from people who could not imagine eating plant-based diet on land, let alone on a ship. Before deployment, I took the small amount of information I did have about the ship and the food that would be available to make educated guesses about what and how much to pack.
Like boot camp, the main food line of the ship’s galley always offered an animal protein, a hot vegetable, and a carbohydrate. I learned that most of the carbohydrates in the main line are cooked without butter, but this is not a guarantee. I would perform a simple taste test on my own, or ask the culinary specialist when I wanted to eat rice from the mess hall. Other than that, I got my carbohydrates from morning oatmeal, fruit, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. (Nuts were especially plentiful, because they were served in the galley and available for purchase at the ship store.) The salad bar offered a variety of fruit, raw vegetables, sliced bread, nuts, and peanut butter. On the best days, I could load my plate with broccoli, red cabbage, carrots, chickpeas, and a piece of fruit. On the worst days, I would eat olives, pasta salad, celery, and grapefruit. Not bad at all!
For main protein sources, I had to creatively outsource on my own. I brought aboard Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), chickpea flour, and protein powder. I replenished these using Amazon.com, which delivered right to the ship. The TVP was by far the most user-friendly because it comes dried, prepares simply by adding water, and is inexpensive. The chickpea flour I used to make mini quiches in the microwave. I would whip up about a week’s worth at a time and store them in my shop or locker at room temperature. Along with the protein, I also brought aboard tahini, blackstrap molasses, a seed mixture—hemp, flax, chia—and a green superfoods powder. I also provided my own B12 and multivitamin supplements.
The USS Carl Vinson made port calls in Guam, South Korea, and Singapore. All three cultures eat a predominantly plant-based diet, so it was not hard to find vegetable-based and tofu dishes. (I did my research via HappyCow.net and read up on dishes common to these regions before going ashore.) While I was never certain that I was 100 percent perfect in all my food selections, I am confident I did the absolute best I could.
When we ported on the final day of deployment, I found that my fitness had actually improved. I had increased both my lifts and flexibility with no crazy weight gain or loss, and my energy levels had stayed normal throughout the cruise. I considered it a success on all accounts.
While on the ship, many people found out I was vegan and proceeded to tell me their own stories. Many had been vegan or vegetarian before but gave up in the military. After a few months of staying vegan on the ship, I started to hear more admiration than criticism from my coworkers. They wanted to know how I did it.
The biggest takeaway I’ve gathered from my time in the Navy is that there are always healthy plant-based options to choose from. It just takes some planning and a little creativity. Try your best to stay positive; think ahead and create a viable food plan; stay flexible in food choices based on available options; and don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up. The goal is to continue to do the least amount of harm to our bodies, the environment, and the animals.