Nicole Haddon: My Vegan Deployment

Nicole Hadden

Popular question from an omnivore, “Is being a vegan hard?” Easy answer from a seasoned vegan, “Of course not.” We say this because abstaining from animal products is not a matter of will, it’s a choice we’ve made at some point and has become a way of life. We can peruse most menus and find something to eat, we’ve attended many Thanksgivings with ease, and have endured the endless stream of questions about protein intake.

I credit the ease of my vegan lifestyle to experience, but mostly to the fact that I live in an area where vegan-friendly products are readily available. However, all of that changed when I was sent on a six-month deployment on the USS Carl Vinson to the Korea Operating Area. Aboard the ship were 6,000 individuals living in cramped, dirty, uncomfortable conditions. I was told from the very beginning that I would have to give up my vegan diet because the food on the boat barely nourishes an omnivore, let alone a vegan.

I met many individuals aboard who said they had to give up veganism because it was impossible to do so on a ship away from a kitchen, family, and any semblances of familiarity. Therefore, I am sharing what I did, learned, and what I recommend for others who want to continue—or begin—a plant-based lifestyle but feel they have a restricted environment.

The Beginning

I have been conscious of my health for as long as I can remember. Exercise and eating healthy are a part of my everyday routine. I had a nutritional enlightenment over 10 years ago when I read The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, PhD. It basically told me what I had suspected for some time—that plant-based diets support optimal health and vitality. I was lucky enough to transition into a plant-based diet in Southern California where you can really let your vegan-light shine! Not only does this area have plenty of vegan-friendly restaurants and stores, but you can easily find people who encourage the lifestyle.

The Navy

Fast forward to 2015 and all that changed when I joined the Navy. It was a big transition not only because of my diet, but also because I was so used to having total control over my life—now the Navy was in charge. It’s estimated that about 1 to 2% of the U.S. population are practicing vegans. And considering there are only about 2% of U.S. citizens serving in the military, it is not hard to imagine that the Navy doesn’t see many vegans cross their path. I didn’t expect the military to change their meal system on account of me serving in the armed forces.

I didn’t let that stifle me though. I love eating plant-based, and I 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! Military or not, I was committed to maintaining this lifestyle.

My first challenge was to complete basic training. Questions came up of whether I could continue eating plant-based in a “bootcamp environment.” At basic training, they offered a main line with hot dishes—animal protein, carbohydrate, and a hot vegetable—and a salad bar with raw vegetables, fruit, peanut butter, bread, and cereals. I spent the eight weeks living off of the salad bar. For breakfast, I had oatmeal with peanut butter and fruit. And for lunch and dinner, I had a raw vegetable salad with balsamic vinaigrette and fruit. Pretty boring, but hey, it was only for eight weeks. Even the omnivores were bored of their limited diet! We all suffered together.

I originally kept my plant-based lifestyle from my coworkers to avoid constant questions and skepticism. I wasn’t really jazzed about spending the next four years hearing, “You’re vegan? That’s weird.” or “I could never live without steak!” or “You’re not getting enough nutrients.” But they ultimately figured it out. They made the typical vegan jokes that were lighthearted and harmless, and they asked how I was going to maintain a vegan diet while on a ship. Although I had not yet been on deployment, I had a lot of confidence that I could maintain my lifestyle—after all, I was able to do it in basic training! These conversations triggered a ton of naysaying around me. Basically, everyone told me it simply could not be done.

When basic training ended, I arrived at my first command. That’s when I found out I would be going on a six-month deployment.

I knew going into my deployment that I didn’t just want to survive, I wanted to thrive! After all, I was going to be on a ship for six months! For the sake of my job and my wellbeing, I couldn’t suffer through measly meals and have no energy. My job as an Aviation Technician with a Growler squadron requires picking up heavy equipment and running them up and down steep stairwells, across a flight deck the length of a football field, and the planes are moving constantly. I needed to ensure that I gave myself the nutrients to work proficiently and safely. And for my mental well being, I wanted to continue my normal stress relieving activities of CrossFit, cardio, and yoga.

How Did I Do It?

First, I revved up my self-confidence. I acknowledged the fact that I had a good amount of food knowledge and now good amount of experience eating plant-based in restrictive environments. I also acknowledged the fact that basically all the questioning was coming from people who do not eat a plant-based diet and could not imagine doing so on land, let alone a ship. I took the small amount of information I did have about the boat and the food that would be available, and I made educated guesses about what and how much to pack.*

On the ship, the main food line always offered an animal protein, a hot vegetable, and a carbohydrate. The salad bar had 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.

As for the carbohydrates, most of the main line carbohydrates are cooked without butter, but it is not guaranteed. I did a simple taste-test or asked the culinary specialist when I wanted to eat rice from the main line. Other than that, I got my carbohydrate from legumes, my morning oatmeal, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Nuts were especially plentiful because they were served in the galley and could be purchased at the ship store.

When it came to my protein sources, I had to outsource that on my own. I brought aboard Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), chickpea flour, and protein powder. I replenished using Amazon.com, which delivered right to the ship. The TVP was by far the most user-friendly because it comes dried, cooks simply by rehydrating it, and is inexpensive. The chickpea flour I used to make chickpea mini quiches using the microwave. I would whip up about a weeks 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.

We had port calls in Guam, 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 areas beforehand to isolate vegan-friendly meals to enjoy. Just like on the ship, I exercised a lot of flexibility and food knowledge. I will never be certain that I was 100% perfect in all my food selections at the ports, but I am confident I did the absolute best I could.

After a few months on the ship, I started to hear more admiration than criticism from my coworkers. And when we ported on the final day of deployment, I found that my fitness had improved! I increased my lifts and flexibility with no crazy weight gain or loss, and my energy levels were normal throughout the cruise. I considered it a success on all accounts.

Final Thoughts

While on the ship, many people found out I was vegan and then proceeded to tell me their story of being vegan or vegetarian, but how the military curtailed their diet. For any vegan who is interested in joining the Navy, know that it is possible! The best advice I can offer is to 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 do the least amount of harm to our bodies, the environment, and the animals.

Comments are closed.