Across her numerous books, Mary Roach is not afraid to ask the questions most of us probably want to ignore and never think about. For example, in the book Grunt, about soldiers and warfare, Roach asks how the army addresses diarrhea for soldiers in the field. The question is gross and Roach makes it a little funny, but for the army it is not a laughing matter, and it is a serious concern for soldiers.
Speaking with Captain Mark Riddle, Roach learns that soldiers’ gastrointestinal tracts have indeed kept them off certain missions. Riddle explains that one soldier was unfortunate enough to experience diarrhea almost every time he was on a mission, and as a result he was limited to shorter missions closer to army bases. He could not be used for long-term missions that took him deep into enemy territory. You need to be able to process the food and water in underdeveloped or un-sanitized areas if you are going to successfully execute a mission deep into dangerous enemy territory.
At one point, Roach asks a “Special Operations mechanic whether he knows of a vital operation that might have been compromised because someone got a vicious case of food poisoning. He dismisses the very idea. The guys they select for this type of work? They don’t have these types of problems. They’re selected for a reason.”
Roach continues, “20 percent of the population are what Riddle calls nongetters: people who can eat ceviche from street vendors, drink the water, never get sick.” For a whole host of reasons, some probably genetic, some the result of a fortunate set of gut bacteria, and some probably psychological and stress management related, some soldiers simply don’t get sick. During the age of COVID, this is certainly an enviable 20 percent of the population. These nongetters are the ones who are selected for long-term missions deep into enemy territory. They are the ones who can go on foot patrol, mingle with the locals, eat the food they provide, and manage the end results of that food and water. If they constantly got sick, they could not handle the mission, and they wouldn’t find themselves on lengthy deployments. In the army, a strong gut is as important as a strong mind and strong biceps. Nongetters are the ones our army relies upon for crucial missions that put our soldiers’ gastrointestinal tracts in the microbiological firing lines.