Coffee: The Military Essential That Fuels Combat, Camaraderie and Communion
Coffee as the conduit for memories of a military career
By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense military culture poet
Of all the drinks, meals, and other fuels I have experienced in my life as a soldier, it is coffee that stands out as the stand alone drink of choice and remembrance. I remember:
In the deep green of Vietnam, cold and continuously soaked from the endless Annamite monsoon crachin, a small ball of C4 under a C ration fruit can explodes with intense energy and quickly brings the contents to a boil despite the rain. A pair of carefully hoarded C Ration instant coffee packets is inserted with a spoonful of Swiss Miss powder. With a swirl of the white plastic spoon, an elixir for the Gods is ready. At least for the Gods of that time and place.
The night, with a continuous rain of mortars and rockets, as well as green tracers, bisect the bunkers and their deeply ensconced occupants. No rest for the wicked. Bunker Two, manned by an old line Platoon Sergeant with combat stars on his jump wings, fires up a squad stove. Extracting a hoard of real ground coffee “acquired” by questionable means, he swirls the treasure in the boiling #10 can. The aroma, rich, heady, and with a perfume of overwhelming comfort, fills the air. He offers a canteen cup to me which I gratefully hold in my cupped hands — savoring the delicious aromatic tendrils and the warmth. I take my first sip and know it is going to be a good day.
Tet 1968. Grinding, brute force urban warfare. Fifty feet between us and them. Day and night melt into one. Exhaustion is a state of euphoria. Wakefulness a constant requirement. We are all catatonic, but artillery must be adjusted, airstrikes guided, and mortal decisions made regarding the next door to assault. My bodyguard, a Montagnard, makes a small fire out of splintered ammo boxes on our rooftop overwatch position. He heats water in an aluminum teapot which he always has on his rucksack. He pours the boiling water into an aluminum fixture over a cup filled with impossibly fine, highly roasted coffee grounds. He adds a large spoonful of sweetened condensed milk, swirls the mix with a stick and offers it to me. I take it down, first slowly and then in haste. I close my eyes and enjoy the flavors and the moment. Back to work.
Chasing Pablo. Deep in the Putamayo/Amazona, supporting the Colombian forces raiding drug labs. It is very early morning. The trees drip dawn’s dew as light slowly invades the canopy and settles on the ground. I drop out of my hammock and walk to the thatched shelter exuding a semi-rotten, semi-wet blue smoke. A soldier is squatting by the fire fanning a hesitant flame of splintered green bamboo. Another soldier joins him with a large pouch of virgin native coffee beans he has just picked. He stirs the beans into a skillet, resulting in an immediate pungent green acrid odor. Roasting. At some point in the process, indiscernible to me, he flips the roasted beans into a small tin ricer. He grinds the beans directly into boiling water. The water roils up in large brown bubbles and then settles as he stirs. He swirls the open pot, lifts it off the fire, and proffers me a broken tea cup of the initial contents. Ambrosia.
Kars, Turkey, is farther east longitude than Moscow. It is evil, rugged terrain. Largely without vegetation, it is a desert in all but name. The nights, even in August, are harsh, cold, and dry. The Turk Colonel has minimal luxuries but is a host without limits, within his limits. As light awakens us from our ground bound slumber — no beds here — his aide is already working over the fire. A black tin kettle is sitting on charcoal coals he is vigorously fanning. Soon, he says something indiscernible to me but understood by my counterpart. He smiles broadly with chipped and ochre teeth, motioning me to the pot. As we approach, the aide produces three small diameter tall cups. He swirls the contents of the pot with a bamboo whisk while simultaneously and dramatically, pouring the contents into the cups. My counterpart bids me to take one. We smile and swallow the contents filled with the most concentrated essence of coffee I have ever experienced — much of which is powdered and of the fineness of Delta mud. The day has a good beginning.
Near Tikrit. An empty gutted building. My security force has spent the night on the floor awaiting clearance to move forward. The streets are silent save for the yowling of a stray dog and the rattling aluminum sheets and plastic trash bits that resonate with every gust of wind. A retired NCO moves to a small room and returns with a broad smile. He has a small blue propane grill he finds in an adjacent room. He moves to one of our armored vehicles, extracts a bag from a cargo container and returns. He stirs the contents — real US coffee grounds — into boiling water. Another member goes to another vehicle and returns with a packet of white styrofoam cups, and a five pound bag of sugar and powdered flavored cream. The simple word — “ready”, brings us all to the scene. We stand expectedly, anxiously, as the old sergeant organizes the moment. The contents are carefully measured into the cups, and we are silently pointed to them. Another good day begins thanks to an NCO who knows what is important.
The Black Forest of Germany is dark, damp, and close. Under the thick fir and pine canopy, it is almost claustrophobic. To think that divisions of men fought and died under that green is almost unimaginable, but we are here now. It is cold, wet, and almost miserable. We are in what passes for daylight as the sky drips constantly upon us. As the senior man present, people look to me for some indication of actions intended. I go to my jeep and extract the long used squad stove and blackened open pot I have carried since a Captain, now a Colonel. Inside the pot, is my stash of coffee grounds and sugar cubes. While everyone looks questioningly, I proceed to make cowboy coffee — my fallback when the mess hall fails to provide my elixir of choice. I boil the water, throw in the grounds, stir it and take the pot off the flames. After a moment to settle, I use my glove and pour the contents into several eagerly proffered canteen cups. One soldier, my accompanying Captain Liaison officer, savors all this and asks if he can do this tomorrow. Of course. He is a quick learner. I hope he passes the critical skill set on.
Of all the necessary assets and material, a cup of hot coffee competes with ammunition as a crucial soldier commodity.
Col. (Ret.) Keith Nightingale commanded four infantry companies, three battalions, and two brigades. These units included two tours in Vietnam, the Grenada invasion, and several classified counterterrorist operations, among them the Iran rescue attempt. He was a founding member of the 1-75th Rangers as well as one of the original members of what is now Joint Special Operations Command. He is a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame. You may owe him a cup of coffee.