The g-f diet vs. the military

Did you know that the United States military won’t accept you if you have Celiac disease?

I only recently found this out, and it was from a new friend (Tom) that I recently met. Tom and I started chatting about health and wellness, and I mentioned that I follow the gluten-free diet. He mentioned his friend Matthew who also was on the g-f diet and even prevented from serving because of it.

ashley-matthew2I froze hearing that. Then I got pissed and knew that I’d have to connect with Matthew to hear his story:

Q: Did you start following the gluten-free diet because of a sensitivity to gluten, or do you have Celiac?

A: Celiac disease. I was diagnosed as an infant. When I was 3 weeks old, I suddenly grew bloated and my abdomen ballooned out. My mother, having been a Neonatal nurse in the Navy, knew to take me to the hospital immediately.

The doctors found that I had an intestinal malrotation and severe inflammation of my small intestine. I had to have a very serious surgery with a high possibility of mortality. The procedure was successful, though, and I went home after a brief NICU stay with the newfound diagnosis of Celiac disease, which was assumed to have been the cause of the episode.

Q: Oh wow, that’s really interesting. I’ve never heard of such a severe reaction. Do you think that your mom working as a neonatal nurse in the navy influenced your desire to serve? 

A: My mom has definitely influenced me, and still continues to. (She’s in her early 60’s and still going strong as a veteran ER nurse.) She has been the main driver influencing me to go into the healthcare field.

I come from a family with a long history of military service. Hearing the stories of family members who have served really makes you proud of your roots.

Q: That’s really interesting. So, have you been following the gluten-free diet forever? 

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A:  I followed the diet off and on since the surgery in ’88. My parents kept me pretty gluten-free while I was younger, but living in the 80’s/90’s in a small town, gluten-free food was hard to come by. Awareness was very low.

My symptoms were also minimal, since the surgery removed a large portion of my intestine that normally would be damaged by gluten. Wanting to be a normal kid in the school lunch line led me to deviate from the diet between the ages of 6 to 20.

During undergrad, I studied health sciences and got back on the gluten-free diet for good. I’ve been pretty strict for 8 years now.  I’m not a “freak” about everything being “certified GF” but that’s kind of luxury due to my minimal symtomology. I still make every conscious effort to be gluten-free.

Q:  Have you seen/can you speak to the increase in availability and/or quality of gluten-free products since you first starting following the diet?

A: We’ve come a long way in my lifetime. My mom would drive 45 minutes away to buy gluten-free, cardboard-tasting bread in the past.

It was tough in the 90’s and early 2000’s. It can still be tough in rural areas, but around 2005 I started to notice increasing awareness, labeling efforts and some mentions on menus at restaurants in Michigan.

Between 2006 and 2010 is when I saw the biggest increase in g-f friendliness (however my perception may be skewed because I spent those years in Ann Arbor).

Now, I live in Flint for school and it feels like I’ve regressed a half decade in terms of g-f friendliness, but I still get by. To put it simply, the days of driving 45 minutes to get a loaf of sand are long gone, but the majority of Michigan still has a way to go.

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Q: What is the best gluten-free friendly place you’ve got around you? Any favorites?

A: Michigan has never quite been on the culinary cutting edge, but within the past 5 years I’ve seen some interesting changes. My opinions are slightly skewed having lived in Ann Arbor (which is foodie heaven, and very accommodating).

With the advent of social media, the microbrewery boom here, an increasingly farm to table/organic focus, and the whole Detroit youth culture revival, I’ve seen Michigan come a long way.

Local Favorites include: Buddy’s (Detroit Metro) has the best  gluten-free pizza in the WORLD and g-f beer/ciders always on. Jolly Pumpkin (In Ann Arbor) has a gluten-free menu and a g-f IPA ON TAP! Flint is still in the dark ages when it comes to gluten-free, but the foodie culture is slowly picking up speed.

Q: Thanks for sharing! Buddy’s sounds awesome. Tom mentioned you’ve experimented with brewing your own g-f beer. That’s pretty admirable! How’d that go? Is that still something you dabble in?

A: I did get into home-brewing during undergrad. I bought a 5 gallon pail of sorghum malt, and got about 12 brews out of it before getting too busy with school to keep up the hobby.

My initial brews were awful but as I refined my skills, while living with Tom (his excellent taste in beer rubbed off on me), I began to brew lighter ales with heavy dry hopping and minimal “interesting” adjuncts.

What ensued were mostly IPA style. I even decided to enter a contest with a brew I called “Celiac Soda”. It was my attempt at making a gluten-free beer to replace the tailgate “versatility” of light American party beers.

I was amazed when it got ranked into the “Very good” class. I plan to pick the hobby back up after I finish my Master’s next year.

Q: That’s awesome, you totally should! It’s not easy to make a good g-f beer. So, I know you had your heart on serving in the military but you were rejected due to your dietary restrictions. Can you explain how that process worked? How did you feel finding this out?

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A: This is a complex and personal subject for me. I entered the Army ROTC while in undergrad. I wanted to be a Ranger Medic. These valorous dudes and chicks are like guardian angels for our nation’s grim reapers.

Ironically enough, I currently train side by side with them.

Q: Cool! In what capacity?

A: I currently am training in nurse anesthesia. We’re the majority of the providers who put you to sleep and keep you safe and comfortable during surgery; we also provide safe pain and sedation medication therapy and take charge in emergency/code blue situations.

These are skills that the Ranger and Seal medics must also become proficient at. In an ironic twist of fate, the Special Ops Command has chosen the very same hospital where I am undergoing my training to train their medics (1 of 2 hospitals in the nation).

I even coached one of them through his first intubation a few weeks ago. Here’s a quick read about it.

(Back to story)

I needed to successfully pass DODMERB (Department of Defense Medical Exam Review Board) for medical clearance. At the time, dodmerb listed “any current or history of malabsorption disorders” as a dis qualifier of military service. (They have since adjusted wording to directly state “Celiac disease”.)

I had to apply for a medical waiver. Meanwhile, I was taking this ROTC thing to heart and getting very entrenched in the culture. The people I met were my new found brothers and sisters.

It took 2 waiver applications and 7 months total before I found out I was forever denied. I was heartbroken. The fact that I wouldn’t be there for the exemplary young men and women who might end up wounded on the battlefield in need of help… It was gut wrenching.

It wasn’t until a few days later that I began to realize that, for the first time in my life, I had a physical disability which prevented me from pursuing my dreams. I had never considered myself handicapped until that moment. It was like an aftershock.

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No longer could I fulfill my duty to serve and protect those new-found brothers and sisters fighting bravely for each others’ lives. It was a rough year, and it still bothers me every-time I see soldiers or hear the national anthem. Like a chip on my shoulder with nobody to blame.

Q: It doesn’t seem fair. I feel like we could get a petition going… or something. Do you think there is a solution at all? 

A: There is no solution. What it boils down to is that the military operates in the most efficient way possible. The brilliant minds behind our military have purposefully cut us out because of multiple reasons: liability, selectivity and MRE chowline.

The only way to get Celiacs in the military would be to get the MRE manufacturers and chowline food/aid conglomerate contractors (Sara Lee, ConAgra, Aramark, etc) to convert to gluten-free options. (In other words, about a snowball’s chance in hell.)

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