Combat Coffee: One Marine’s Tour of Caffeine

Despite being from Seattle, land of Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Tully and more than a handful of artisanal brewers, I didn’t come by my coffee habit honestly. The bitter drink didn’t cross my lips during college, despite the frequent all-night cram sessions wrought of a sporadic (home) work ethic.

Deployed in Afghanistan, MRE coffee in hand.

Combat Breakfast: two aspirin, two cups of coffee, a quick prayer, a quick puke.
– USMC saying, Korean War

Despite being from Seattle, land of Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Tully and more than a handful of artisanal brewers, I didn’t come by my coffee habit honestly. The bitter drink didn’t cross my lips during college, despite the frequent all-night cram sessions wrought of a sporadic (home) work ethic. Coffee would have certainly improved the 12-mile bike commute in the cold Seattle drizzle at 0525, timed to maximize sleep, yet arrive before NROTC drill practice.

Officer Candidate School (OCS) introduced me to new depths of sleep deprivation — short sleep periods combined with intense physical activity turned us into zombies shuffling along. Military formations became an exercise in intense concentration, especially after I fell asleep standing up, only catching myself, and the platoon sergeant’s unfavorable attention, short of smashing my face into the parade deck. It never occurred to me to get a cup of Joe at the mess hall; the Bunn was situated directly in front of the area where the staff sat, a place to be avoided for danger of unwanted haranguing from the collective hyenas bent on finding your smallest flaw.

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From the darkest rathole fighting position in Afghanistan to the most pristine cubicles at the Pentagon, coffee is a storied staple of American military culture. To be a non-drinker in the military is akin to heresy — they burn witches for that sort of behavior in the Corps. Noting the deleterious effect of alcohol on military performance, President Andrew Jackson signed an Executive Order 25 October 1832 designating that coffee and sugar were to be substituted for the allowance of rum, whiskey or brandy. A sad day, but at least not a total loss — and the origin of transitioning coffee from uncommon non-alcoholic social drink to the ubiquitous beverage it is today. During the Civil War, coffee was a treasured part of the Union troops’ ration; Confederate troops went without, leaving them to forage for substitutes such as acorns, chicory or other weeds. We know how that turned out.

While there is no record of a medal being awarded for coffee skills, after the Civil War grateful Union soldiers raised a monument to Sergeant William McKinley, future President of the U.S., and his vending skills under fire at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. By World War I, American coffee companies were including instant coffee in every daily ration. During World War II, civilians went without while defense workers and troops were supplied with as much coffee as they wanted. The Army’s Quartermaster Corps roasted, ground, and packed coffee, in addition to subcontracting to 19 roasters, to meet demand. G.I. Joe, so closely identified with coffee drinking, gave his name to “cuppa Joe.” Millions of service members brought the habit back into civilian life after the war.

Jesus, lieutenant, sit the fuck down and have some fucking coffee.

After college and commissioning in the Marine Corps, my first duty station was at The Basic School (TBS) in Quantico, Virginia for six months of initial training. Unlike OCS, where the object was mere survival, TBS performance had implications on military occupational specialty selection and promotions for the rest of one’s career. I didn’t just want to survive — I wanted to excel in a crowd of Type A’s. Field exercises were longer, in the cold of Northern Virginia fall and winter, and the expectations for mental acuity were significantly higher. Everything was graded, and every decision evaluated. Sleep was postponed to ensure operations orders were precisely constructed, implemented, and personally supervised. Student leadership billets meant opportunity, but they also added responsibilities that superseded sleep.

Still, that didn’t get me to take up the caffeine habit — at least not conventionally. Meals-Ready-to-Eat, or MREs, the military rations, came with a small packet of Nescafe instant coffee. Even for someone who liked coffee, this was vile stuff. I didn’t drink it: I put the dry powdered coffee under my lip, like chew tobacco, and chased it with water, a nasty expedient saving the precious time of mixing it with hot water and the danger of an open flame that might reveal my location.

Assigned to my first infantry battalion, few field exercises maintained the same tempo and adherence to concealment. Company training events provided ample opportunity for the company’s first sergeant, First Sergeant Ciccarelli, to set up a field expedient brewing station. First Sergeant Ciccarelli was a short, crass fireball of energy who pretended (I believe) to hate everyone. He dropped the f-bomb without reservation, but he was competent and wise, and I ignored his advice and recommendations at my own peril. It took me a while to realize that his invitations to join him in a cup weren’t about the coffee — I think it took him saying, “Jesus, lieutenant, sit the fuck down and have some fucking coffee” — but about camaraderie and a chance to impart a little wisdom that might limit the damage done by a green lieutenant. I don’t remember particularly enjoying his brew for its taste, but I won’t forget the company. Field exercises were occasional events, and First Sergeant’s invitations rarer still, so I had yet to develop the habit.


Planning to go ashore in Somalia in 1993 involved long hours and plenty of stress; the Marines ashore had seen a number of firefights with the clans in Mogadishu, and we weren’t certain what to expect upon landing. The wardroom, or officers’ mess, aboard USS Wasp, the flagship for the amphibious ready group, had a large industrial coffeemaker with two cauldrons: one labeled “strong”, the other, “stronger”. Filling my coffee mug half full with the stronger brew, dumping several tablespoons of sugar, and topping off with milk gave me a palatably sweet milky hit of caffeine that only tangentially resemble coffee. Gradually, more coffee was adulterated with less sugar and less milk. Once ashore, MRE coffee was mixed with creamer and sugar packets and the ration’s cocoa for “Magic Moca” — a concoction every soldier and Marine knows. Those months were formative, however, and today I most often add a bit of sugar and cream to my drip.

Most field combat operations centers (COCs) have a small coffee mess set up inside, either a commercial drip coffee maker that is religiously tended by a zealous operations chief or his surrogate, or a large silver bullet the Logistics Officer keeps filled. Unit standard operating procedures (SOP) will often include the precise location of the coffee pot in COC diagrams — some things are just too important to leave to chance, and space is at a premium inside the command center. Aboard the multitude of forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Green Beans coffee franchise quickly gained a toe-hold, and when General McCrystal reduced the fast food footprint in Afghanistan, the coffee chain escaped the warrior’s blade.

I’m no connoisseur. I brew my coffee every morning in a little 24 year old 4 cup Krups drip coffee maker, and it tastes better to me than the stale brew I’m likely to be served at any of the so-called specialty coffee chains. Maybe my drink is light on ritual and artisanal flavor, but it’s sweetened with memories of cups shared with a blessed few in foreign lands — those brothers with whom I’ve shared privation in some shitty little hole halfway across the world. There’s nothing bitter in that.

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