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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