I’ve been asked this time and time again and the answer hasn’t changed much depending on if you’ve noticed the sentimental language I’ve used. I have seen more changes than I want to see in a lifetime in the Army – roughly 23 years or almost half my life. When I first came into the Army, I was privileged to wear the jungle fatigues famously known for the Vietnam War. I cried (figuratively) when they were pushed aside, being they were the most comfortable uniform I had worn now or since. They came with a pair of cool jungle boots with canvas side panels, and I mean Fonzie cool. So, why fix what ain’t broke?
I entered the Army at a time when those solid Olive Drab uniforms were still being issued in Panama and a dictator and drug runner named Manuel Noriega ruled the roost in that tropical crazy Banana Republic. I wasn’t obligated to wear the battle dress uniform ‘woodlands,’ both light and heavy depending upon the season, with wide “Elvis” collars, until near the end of my baptismal tour near the close of 1989. Our biggest threat then was the Soviet Union, and a probable invasion by the communist nation into western Europe involved crossing dark green forests. If you’re wondering, GI Joe dolls still wear the obnoxious black-and-green camouflage pattern. You’ve also probably seen them in modern ‘B’ movies whose directors don’t know any different or just don’t care.
And spit-shined boots had not gone out of style just yet. We had dedicated classes in basic training to show us just how to bring a mirror gloss to footwear designed to be worn in the elements, especially in mud. Really? Though punishment was minor for not meeting the standard, getting that frowny face by a sergeant major still brought unreasonable fear. The complicated process required the following supplies: Kiwi wax, isopropyl alcohol, a cigarette lighter, and baby diaper. Doesn’t sound like safe combination, right? At least not for a young private. You wrap white soft cloth around index and middle finger – the same two digits used to signal peace. Go figure. A circular motion of a million times over made a young recruit’s hands sore. Makes you wonder why you’d do that to your trigger finger.
Let’s not forget the headgear, an almost useless adornment. Most of us Joes and Janes wear the patrol cap or soft cap, though some of us don berets, tan, maroon and black depending on the job you do – Special Forces, Rangers and Airborne, the latter group made up of guys and girls who jump out of planes. Think about it. A perfectly good aircraft. If a beret is worn incorrectly, a soldier risks the ridicule of looking like a mime in New York’s Central Park. A flattened beret is what we endearingly call pizza style. If you want expert advice, ask the paratroops on Fort Bragg, N.C.; they have beret wearing down to an art form.
Then there were the variations of dress uniform, when we weren’t carrying around weapons or rolling around in the dirt, polyester green jackets and pants, and light almost lime-green shirts, topped with a garrison (yep, that’s back in the rear away from the action) cap. Its vulgar nickname refers to an equally vulgar slang comparing it to the female genitalia. There was no gentle way to phrase it. Sadly, it’s part of history. This was well before political correctness, and before women could join combat units, remarkably, a decision made only a few years ago. Many of my fellow veterans remember a time when it was said, “if the Army wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one.” That might give you a better idea of where women stood, long before the era of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps began to change the fabric of our armed forces. Thankfully those green polyester nightmares went away, and gave way to the more traditional Army blues, slight variations for enlisted soldiers and officers.
Don’t worry, that kind of separation cuts across the entire ground force. We are defined by what we do in uniform, despite efforts to subdue our individuality and keep us focused on working together. Average citizens might not notice all the accoutrements, devices, patches and awards that adorn said uniforms. If not, and you get the opportunity, take a gander at shoulder sleeves and the area above our front-chest pockets. There you’ll see the patches of units with long histories – some of the more famous, All-American (double-A) for the 82nd, the Screaming Eagles for the 101st, and the Tropic Lightning of the 25th Infantry in Hawaii come to mind. Above those patches, you might read words like the afore-mentioned uniquely skilled Ranger, Special Forces and some that might not make sense to you, like Mountain or Sapper, the latter who are combat engineers with the reputation for blowing up things. And go over the ribbons. They can tell a life story.
Myself? I work in public affairs – one of only hundreds in the Army, yet I’m trained to fire weapons like everyone else. Our insignia includes a quill, sword and lightning bolt. I’ll leave it up to you about the pen being mightier. I attended the Defense Information School, then on Fort Benjamin Harrrison, in Indianapolis, Indiana. They called us Chairborne, a label we accepted with pride. And FYI, it takes about 190 different job specialties to keep the Army rolling along, defending this great nation, and some require, you guessed it, a slightly different uniform.
There are rifles, air assault qualification, expert infantry, and combat action badges sewn above our name tapes to single out who we are, about the only reference to our individualism. You can identify the bad asses among the bad asses. The soldiers with longer names that drill sergeants couldn’t pronounce end up being called “Alphabet,” or simply soldier, or better yet, “hey you,” for those warm-body missions. One rule you learned early in your career was never volunteer, lest you want your name remembered. Seriously, if you see the Medal of Honor around a neck, stop and shake that warriors hand.
About the time of the Gulf War in the early 90s, some of us wore a sand-color uniform to hide among the miles of desert in Kuwait, Iraq and eventually Afghanistan. It didn’t matter that we could be spotted miles away – the silhouettes and shadows of not only ourselves, but large trucks, and tanks. Had we faced a different enemy, who knows what might have been different about it.
Not too much later in 2005, the uniforms changed once again to match our rapidly advancing technology. Some genius gave a lot of thought, or maybe not at all, to how soldiers of the future should look. What would he or she wear? So, why not something Matrix like. I know, something in digital. What? Pixilated camouflage? We looked foolish in our Army Combat Uniforms (ACU) standing next to our Air Force brethren who went with a version of tiger stripes, a throwback to a more stylish time. You guessed it. Vietnam.
We learned the hard way, what a design cost us, the cut of a uniform, not in money, but in lives. We stood out like sore thumbs in Afghanistan; we didn’t blend in well, except for special forces (beards and non-traditional survival gear). Once again, bright minds got together and came up with the NEW Scorpion Camouflage uniform or more popularly known as the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) because the Army has and always will be more comfortable reducing names to letters. The uniform was also known as MultiCam which was commercially developed. Notice a pattern in the decline of common sense? Yes, the BDU, ACU and OCP followed a tradition of what it’s like to hide ourselves from the ‘bad guys’ in ways that have not lasted.
Now our leadership proposes bringing back World War II era dress uniforms called “Pinks and Greens.” It’s a uniform associated with great generals like Eisenhower, Abrams, Patton, Bradley, MacArthur, and an era defined as a clear-cut victory over tyranny and oppression. And, yeah, the uniform does look good. But don’t kid yourself. The uniform glosses over a lot about our Army culture and microcosm of our society – the parts that weren’t so great – if you go so far as to count the segregation of women and minorities. To re-emphasize an already tired but undated phrase in the Army: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” On the other hand, if it needs fixing, don’t think a uniform is the only change we ought to be making.
Call us a work in progress but aren’t we all. Despite the work ahead of us, we DO keep getting better. From the beginning, when I signed my name on that dotted line in 1987, the moment I slipped on the pants, jacket and boots of any of the aforementioned uniforms – call it what you will, spirit de corps, pride swelling up, following the long green line of tradition – I felt like I belonged, just like family. Still do.