Vegetarians are weak. Well, tell that to Patrik Baboumian, a German vegan strongman who in early September 2013 became the first man to carry 550 kilograms (more than 1,200 pounds) over 10 meters.

If you don’t eat meat, you have no stamina, right? Ask Hillary Biscay, a vegan ultra-endurance athlete, who finished second in the Ultraman World Championships, a double Ironman triathlon spanning three days, with the fastest women’s debut course time.

Think that plant-based warriors aren’t tough? Well, ask mixed martial arts fighting greats Mac Danzig and James Lightning Wilks. Both are vegan.

Do these examples mean that we should all become hard-line ascetics, never to eat meat again? Not likely. But these athletes serve as examples that individuals can incorporate more plants into their diet, and still be strong, tough warriors.

Giving up meat is not a mainstream idea. In fact, a July 2012 Gallup poll reported that no more than five percent of Americans identify as vegetarian, meaning that they eat no red meat, poultry or fish. Even fewer, about two percent, in that poll indicated that they are vegan, those who shun all animal derived foods, like eggs, milk and gelatin. These figures represent a slight downtick in vegetarians in the U.S., from about six percent polled in 1999 and 2001.

To extrapolate those statistics across the Department of Defense, of about 1.4 million, active-duty servicemembers, only about 70,000 would consider themselves plant-based.  Of the more than 500,000 active-duty Soldiers, 27,000 would be some form of vegetarian, and at Fort Bragg, 2,700 of the post’s 55,000 active-duty servicemembers would be plant-based.

Plant-based warriors among us

Living a plant-based life in the military isn’t easy, but it can be done.

For Spc. Natasha Connell, being new to things hasn’t been an impediment to success. She split her youth between Russia and Venezuela before attending college in Savannah, Ga., and eventually ending up in an Army uniform stationed at Fort Bragg’s 1st Theater Sustainment Command.

Connell said she had always exercised and tried to eat healthy, but it wasn’t until recently, when her life became more settled, that she took a more focused approach to her food choices.

“I feel like I’ve reached a point in my life where, I just got married last year, I’m lining up my ducks in a row. It was always a goal of mine to take charge of what I eat (and) what my Family eats. So I finally found myself in a position where I can do that,” Connell said.

Connell now brown-bags her lunch, disappointed at the lack of healthier options at restaurants on post.

U.S. Marine Sgt. Jonathan Wright was born into the hardy, coastal Maine town of Kittery, where meat was the centerpiece of the traditional diet, and the perception of vegetarianism, Wright says, “was just a fad diet in California.”

Formerly assigned to Camp Lejeune, near Wilmington, N.C., Wright is currently assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Okinawa, Japan, but spends half of each year either afloat on Navy ships or deployed ashore engaging partner militaries.

He has faced the daily conundrum of living at the border of eating meat or eschewing it, as his wife had followed a vegetarian diet, and then shifted to the more stringent vegan diet. After learning about the health benefits of a vegan diet from his wife and popular documentaries, and not wanting his wife to continue to make two meals each day, he made the decision to stop eating meat. Wright’s last meat-based meal was shared with Republic of Korea Marine counterparts at an Outback Steakhouse in Pohang, Korea in March 2012.

And how has a combat Marine, who spend months deployed and weeks in the field, able to sustain his plant-based life style? It’s not simple, Wright said.

“Unfortunately, I have had to stray from plant-based preference and slide temporarily to allow animal by-products simply so I didn’t become malnourished,” Wright said. “Of the MRE (meals ready to eat) menus, there are, what, four vegetarian ones? With every unit I attach to for field training, I ensure they know to pass the vegetarian ones over to me.”

Wright said that the vegetarian MREs aren’t the most sought after by the “grunts” in his unit, so “they aren’t hard to get anyway.”

For those living in the barracks, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Pfc. Doa’a Salah, assigned to the XVIII Airborne Corps G1, was told during basic training that she needed to give up her vegetarian diet and eat meat to stay healthy. But after becoming sick and feeling “groggy and heavy,” Salah returned to a vegetarian diet. She said that Fort Bragg’s dining facilities offer some of the foods she needs, but she can’t rely solely on a salad bar for complete nutrition.

“We have a common area in the barracks where there is an oven that is shared by

everyone in the barracks, but I usually get veggie burgers and bananas, peanut butter, bread – anything with protein and calcium,” Salah said.

(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on

plant-based living. )