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Peanut butter and jelly — there was a time in my life I relished the accessibility, affordability and pure bliss of this simple sandwich. Actually, I preferred the Elvis (peanut butter and bananas for those of you not up to date on the fine art of sandwich cuisine), but neither are an option for my consumption anymore. This article is the unfortunate tale of my adult-onset peanut allergy. I hope it will help bring food allergies/intolerances to leaders’ mindsets, as one of their Soldiers may have one.
Upon completion of Basic Training, I began having allergic reactions that occurred at various times. At first, the reactions only flared up when participating in physical activity. They were more of an annoyance than anything and happened semi-annually. Within two years, however, the reactions began increasing, so I started to journal every aspect of my day (food, activity, time of day, etc.) when they would occur. From reviewing my journal entries, my best guess was my reactions had something to do with exposure to pollen and weather conditions. While my reactions never occurred during training or on-duty, the potential was there.
About the time I turned 26, my spouse encouraged me to see an allergist. By then my reactions were happening about once a month. When they occurred, I would need to lay down and control my heart rate to keep them from becoming anaphylactic. My appointment with the allergist led to a couple diagnoses: adult-onset allergy to nuts and moderate food-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Throughout college, during Basic Training and up until the allergist appointment, I had regularly eaten peanut butter and consumed other foods with nuts in them. This would no longer be an option because it could lead to me having to sit out and wait for my hives to go away.
Looking back at my earlier journal entries, it became clear that when I exercised within three to four hours after consuming nuts was when I would have these reactions. Upon learning of these conditions, which set in after my enlistment, my biggest fear was that I would no longer be able to serve in the armed forces. I debated with my spouse whether I should let my leadership know of my conditions, but ultimately I came forward to my unit. I was able to provide the proper documentation about my allergies to the appropriate service medical staff and continue to serve because there really isn’t anything in the medical regulations about food allergies and enlistment.
Being in a combat arms mission occupational specialty (MOS), it became apparent that my condition was incompatible with my job. Not only was I putting myself at risk in case of a reaction when training or potentially downrange, but I could be endangering the Soldiers I serve with since they would have to rescue me from some form of nut exposure. It took some time to swallow my pride and transition to a support MOS, where I would be participating in more garrison types of training and missions. It was tough for me to complete this transition because I loved my previous MOS and took great pride in being part of that culture. In the end, it was the right decision so I didn’t endanger my fellow Soldiers.
The near-miss I am trying to address here is for our leaders to keep in mind that there could be Soldiers with food intolerances serving our country. Leaders need to know their Soldiers and develop a culture in which they all feel comfortable coming forward with any concerns or potential issues they have. This is just an assumption, but I am sure there are Soldiers who enlisted with allergies/food intolerances or developed them while they served like I did. Luckily, I had a leadership climate in which I was comfortable coming forward to make them aware of my situation.
Volunteers make up our ranks and we are proud to be serving. Food allergies are more common than they used to be and there are Soldiers out there dealing with them. It is imperative that they are able to come forward, without fear of consequence, so they can continue to serve their country in the right MOS.