Army Culture: The stupid hierarchy of Army uniforms

I was in Walmart yesterday getting a key copied on my way home from work when I was approached by the store manager, an older, polite man. He smiled as he quickly glanced over my Multicam uniform and said “You going over or just coming back? You look like you just got back.”

“No, I’m heading over,” I responded.

The kind smile washed away from his face and he seemed suddenly sad. He patted my back lightly, “Ah, well good luck,” he said in a low tone and walked away.

Walking around post or around town in Multicam, people know you are either “going over” or coming back.

One of the first things I noticed when I joined the Army in 2001 was the stupid hierarchy of Army uniforms. Stepping off the bus in civilian clothes, you are the lowest of the low. There is no question to anyone around you that you are brand new and you don’t know shit. On day one you get issued the physical fitness uniform – black shorts and gray t-shirt. New soldiers who arrived a few days earlier are already wearing the Battle Dress Uniform (now the ACU) complete with real Army boots. Those soldiers look down on the ones who only have PTs, who in turn look down on those wearing civilians.

And on and on it goes for your whole military career.

Multicams though, are unique in that they are only worn when a soldier is about to deploy, signaling to other soldiers that he or she is on his way out. There was a period of time where we were deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan in ACUs and soldiers didn’t get to enjoy the jealous looks from soldiers who haven’t deployed yet and the sad misunderstandings from well-meaning civilians.

The uniform, more than any other thing, is the defining element of military service. It is probably one of the first things that pop into someone’s mind when they think of the military. For a soldier, it becomes a part of you. Over time, the standards regarding the wear and appearance of the uniform become something you feel. When soldiers interact with each other – especially if they’ve never met before – there is a barely conscious examination of the other’s uniform, and a whole lot of judging that takes place.

For those wearing Multicam in the days before a deployment, they tend to stand a little taller and puff their chests out a little further, knowing that they are about to actually go and do the job they’ve trained for and they’re wearing the uniform to prove it.

The way they wear it in the days and weeks after “coming back,” however, tells a much different story.

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The Hobbit on Yadkin Road: Jewel of Fayetteville

Maps
Three maps done by The Hobbit: NTC, Afghanistan (folded), Fort Hood.

The best things you learn in the Army you learn by word of mouth from good NCOs and officers (mostly NCOs). When I was a brand new Private in the 82nd Airborne Division, my first squad leader told me to go down to The Hobbit on Yadkin Road and get a proper cut and laminated map before I went out on my first field problem. I was new and impressionable and didn’t want to disappoint, so I did as he said, without question.

The Hobbit, mind you, is a hobby store very close to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It’s a nerd’s paradise full of Warhammer stuff, models, and role playing clubs on weekends (and I’m not judging, readers of this blog know my interests). When I opened the door in my green BDUs with rolled sleeves and a high and tight, meekly looking around as I stepped inside, the guy behind the counter, a large man with a Game of Thrones-esque beard quickly said “Map?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Right there in the box behind you. It’s fifteen bucks.”

I turned around and saw that indeed there was a box full of cut and laminated maps of Fort Bragg.

The Hobbit has made a small business out of cutting and laminating maps that are foldable and can be placed neatly in the cargo pocket of a soldier’s trousers. Since awkwardly walking into the hobby store back in 2001, I’ve sent every map I’ve been issued there to be cut and laminated and sent back to me.

I have no idea how long they have been providing the service. They don’t have a website or even a legit Facebook page. I’ve always just mailed them my maps with a handwritten note of what I want and a phone number to call me to finalize the deal. It’s relatively inexpensive, fast, and the end product is a map, beautifully cut and laminated.

So, what I’m saying is, if you want your maps expertly cut and laminated, send them to The Hobbit. While there may be someone else that does it locally here at Fort Hood or other posts, I don’t know them. I know The Hobbit. They’re a known quantity and they’re good.

The Hobbit
6111 Yadkin Road, A
Fayetteville, NC 28303
(910) 864-3155

I’m a bit remiss to do this post, because I feel like I might be letting the cat out of the bag. But I like the service so much that I felt it would be helpful to spread the word.

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Full Metal Bitch

Full Metal Bitch

Week ending June 22, 2014

I posted “Women in the Infantry: Full Metal Bitch” while I was still reading All You Need Is Kill, the book that the movie Edge of Tomorrow is based on. It’s a good book and a fun movie, I recommend both.

I’ve enjoyed reading about how the movie has been performing. Despite generally positive reviews, it didn’t do that well at the North American box office. Overseas, however, it’s kicking ass. It gets released in Japan on July 4, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it performs there (All You Need Is Kill is a Japanese young adult novel).

Anyway, “Full Metal Bitch” is a neat moniker for a famous, nearly flawless female soldier, especially one with the attitude that Rita Vrataski has. While I think Emily Blunt captured it well in the film, FMB is in full effect in the book – books don’t owe the audience happy endings.

Interestingly, I’m reminded of another strong female soldier in a futuristic war, where humans face an alien scourge using mechanized suits of armor: ExoSquad.

SGT Rita TorresP.S. I haven’t done a ‘top search of the week’s post for a few months. Most of the searches were the usual suspects, so there really wasn’t much to write about. 

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What does داعش mean?

After watching a few videos about the ongoing violence in Iraq, I noticed that ISIS is referred to as da’aesh (داعش). Just like ISIS is an acronym, so is da’aesh. It stands for al-dawla al-islameeya fii al-‘araq wa al-sham (الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام), which means “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

Pretty simple, but a Google search didn’t instantly turn up the answer I was looking for, so I figured I’d spell it out here for amateur Arabists that might be a little out of practice.

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Homies at War

Homies

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this short documentary at Vice about the guy who made millions of dollars in quarters selling small plastic figures in New York supermarkets. They were called “Homies,” and in the early 2000s, they were wildly popular in New York City.

In March 2003, I deployed to Iraq. My mother worked at a supermarket at the time, and like most supermarkets, it had quarter machines near the exit. One of these machines kept “Homies.”

My mom would send me care packages full of the things I asked for – magazines, food, video games – and then drop in a handful of Homies. It was a strange thing to pull out of a box in Baghdad, but for some strange reason, they became popular in my platoon. I handed them out as I got them and guys set them up around their sleeping area or kept them in their pockets for good luck. A few guys taped a homie to the front sight post of their rifles until someone yelled at them for it.

It was strange to see this documentary, with the guy that once hit it big with his homies now struggling to pay his Verizon bill. Meanwhile, Iraq too has fallen apart, struggling to keep the lid on a dangerous extremist march on Baghdad.

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Can a soldier wear a GoPro on deployment?

Military GoPro videos, like the one below, have become pretty popular recently. Sites like “Funker350” share the videos which get passed around rapidly in the military community online. The GoPro, for those who don’t know, is a company popular for selling small cameras that can be attached to things, like a soldier’s helmet, to capture human experiences as they happen from the virtual point of view of the person. They’re really popular in extreme sports, and the jump to the military isn’t surprising.

Watching the video below, it looks like a first person shooter video game, only it’s completely real.

This trend isn’t all that surprising. Cameras have gotten smaller, lighter, better, and cheaper over the years and social media thrives on pictures and videos of “extreme” things.

I have a hard time deciding whether soldiers wearing GoPros would be a good thing or a bad thing. In the “good” category, you would have a fairly accurate log of what occurs on a combat patrol because it’s live video. There would be no questions as to what happened afterwards because you could simply “roll the videotape.”

Conversely, the same is true. What happens on patrol would not stay on patrol. There are things that may happen outside the wire that, if nothing else, might be pretty embarrassing.

Those two things together, the GoPro seems to be a positive addition, if for nothing else, to serve as a forcing function of good behavior. But, also conversely true, soldier behavior may be affected when they know the GoPro is watching them in a different way. Everyone knows about the “spotlight Ranger” who only performs when the leadership is there to see it. There is also a concern of a guy looking to get an “epic video” doing something that he might not even consider doing if it wouldn’t be caught on video. 

GoPro’s motto is “Be a HERO” after all.

Boiling that argument down, the pro of wearing the GoPro is “everything will be recorded” while the con of wearing the GoPro is “everything will be recorded.”

What are the rules on this, though, as it pertains to soldiers in combat?

While I wasn’t able to find any policies specifically banning the GoPro, General Order Number 1C (GO-1C), which governs troop behavior in the CENTCOM area of responsibility says:

 h. Photography and Videotaping.

          (1) Except as authorized for official use and purposes described below, this Order prohibits the taking, making possession, reproduction, or transfer (to include uploading) of photographs, videos, depictions, and audio-visual recordings of the following:

               (a) detainees or former detainees; detention facilities; active combat operations (e.g., firefights); flight-line operations or equipment, subject to written, local exceptions…

The order specifically prohibits firefights from being photographed or videotaped. If you read through the rest of the order, pretty much anything exciting is banned with the exception of photography relevant to the mission – tactical site exploitation, for example.

My sense of things, as trends go, is wearing the GoPro or something like it, while spooky to senior leaders now, will eventually become mandatory in the near future. Surveillance and recording is not on a down-sloping trend. It would probably do us more good to embrace it now and get good at working with it sooner rather than let a populace armed with smartphones tell our story for us.

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TLOU: 4th Infantry Division Soldier Found in Colorado Mall, Died Fighting Zombies

20140611-074829-28109166.jpg
From The Last of Us: Left Behind. The 4th Infantry Division is based at Fort Carson, Colorado. If there was an Army unit to respond to the zombie apocalypse anywhere in Colorado, it would be 4th ID.

It is refreshing when video games get military details like that right.

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The Battle of Castle Black

This post makes generous reference of Game of Thrones, s4/ep9 (The Watchers on the Wall). So, if you haven’t seen it, there are spoilers below.

The Battle of Castle Black

I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones. I haven’t read all of the books yet, but the HBO show is my absolute favorite thing on television right now.

This past Sunday’s episode The Watchers on the Wall was especially good. Instead of darting back and forth between different characters and settings, we stayed fixed on The Wall for the entire episode. We wouldn’t be teased by Jon Snow and then whisked away to colorful, sunny Mereen or treacherous King’s Landing for a few moments of differing drama or comic relief only to get sucked back to the North. There was no respite.

The entire episode was grim, ugly death.

While watching, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on back in those other places and with those other characters, especially given the dramatic ending of the previous episode. The men of the Night’s Watch, underprepared and grossly outnumbered were there in the dark, holding off a massive army many times their size, all to protect the warring and distracted factions far away to the south who were completely oblivious to what was going – in their name – at The Wall.

For the Night’s Watch, the battle is their only reality as they struggle to keep back the horde,  at least for the night. They are not distracted by the trials of captors going on back home – they don’t have that luxury. For them, victory in battle offers no escape.  It simply means preparing for the next watch.

The day after watching that episode, its residue still lingering in my mind, I was struck by how that “stuck” feeling I got while watching it felt similar to what a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan feels like. When you are there, you are there. There’s this feeling of doing something gravely important but coupled with a dark knowledge that it is completely unimportant and uninteresting to those back home, the feeling that they are completely oblivious to what is happening – in their name.

There’s no escape, either. You fight, sometimes for no other reason than because you are there, spurred on in moments of weakness facing giants by memorized oaths. And when the fight ends and the smoke dissipates, you collect the dead, rebuild the defenses, and prepare for the next battle.

Through the entire episode, my mind kept slipping to King’s Landing and other places, thinking that they need to send troops to counter the invading force. Maybe one day, but I remembered that in Westeros, The Wall is a distraction, a side-show. It is where factions send their trouble-makers and irreconcilables.

There is, of course, a nagging memory of why The Wall exists and why the men of the Night’s Watch are important, but it’s not important enough to warrant straying from the daily drama of trials and intrigue that captures court life in the capitals.

It all seems a little too familiar.

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Back to the Grind

The Grindery

Alas, vacation is over and it is back to the grind. Over the short break, I managed to read All You Need Is Kill, the Japanese sci-fi novel that Edge of Tomorrow is based on, thus the vacation-breaking “Full Metal Bitch” post. It was fun, and reminiscent of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War – which I ought to re-read and review here. I also finished Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a book recommended to me by an infantry friend. I’ve added both to the “Just for fun” portion the End of War Reading List, because the former has that element of never-ending war while the latter is absurd – both fitting themes for the end of war.

I also had a short test piece published at Uniform Stories titled 10 Things My NCOs Told Me That I Can’t Forget. It’s a fun and true list of things I’ve heard NCOs say over the years that I just can’t forget. Check it out and spread the word.

Bonus points if you know what the picture is.

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