‎Army Myths: Chechens

A ruined Grozny, 1995.

Reminded during a recent Team House podcast of a very-GWOT myth: Chechens.

For some reason, “Chechens” became a bogeyman. I heard this in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Related: Juba).

“I heard there is a Chechen sniper in our AO,” someone might say with a knowing gravity.

“Oh damn, really?”

Given the influx of foreign fighters in both countries, of course there would be Chechens. I always wondered though – why, exactly?

What is it about “Chechens” that makes them particularly scary or fearsome? Why is it that when someone would invoke the Chechens, faces became sullen and serious?

I never figured that out.

Maybe someone has a better take on this, but I remember growing up in the 1990s watching the news of the war in Chechnya. It was brutal, and the Russians pulled no punches. I had a notion of what was going on, and there is a part of me that thinks much of the myth-making here is attributing mystical fighting prowess to Chechens because we (collective we, soldiers) really don’t know much about it.

It also feels very conspiratorial any time Chechens are invoked. The presence of “Chechens” points to something darker going on that I never quite bought into. Other leaders might roll their eyes – “This guy again with the Chechens…”

I am sure there is a kernel here, something going on that got this ball rolling. But the power the myth has does not seem warranted.

Would love to know more about the reality here, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

Details about the referenced podcast below.

Wesley Morgan details the history of US military operations in the Pech valley in Afghanistan, a place of deadly battles and unforgiving terrain. We start with the history of the valley and America’s first forays there in 2002, then get into the larger conventional and special operations campaigns that have taken place there with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

‎The Team House: Deadly Special Ops missions in the Pech Valley with Wes Morgan, Ep. 85 on Apple Podcasts

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Army Myths: Unhook your chest strap and you get 10% more inflation

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Before a jump, paratroopers spend a lot of time waiting around. The airborne timeline is notorious for having you show up at 0300 for a 2359 time on target, and most of the time inbetween is spent talking with the guys next to you.

Invariably, talk will turn to how much jumping sucks, and how to make it suck less.

A myth that I heard over and over from “senior” E4s and junior NCOs was that if you unhooked the chest buckle of the T-10D parachute during your descent, your canopy would get a little extra inflation. On more than one occasion I heard that it would give you 10% “more lift.”

I remember being skeptical upon hearing this at first. I understood the theory, that by unhooking the chest buckle it would theoretically allow the risers to expand out more, thus allowing the canopy to also expand, letting in more air and slowing the descent.

I dismissed their claims, and they dismissed my dismissals as naive.

The only way I’d know for sure, they said, was to try it out myself.

New paratroopers are unlikely to risk touching any of their equipment during descent out of fear – better to just ride it all in than to touch something you shouldn’t touch and risk a gory way to die.

After making a certain number of jumps and feeling confident that I kind of knew what I was doing, I decided to finally test the claim for myself. During a “hollywood” (no equipment, day time) jump on a pleasant day, I unhooked my chest strap during my descent to see if it would do anything.

It didn’t.

I fell to Earth, at more or less the same speed as I was before I unhooked the buckle.

Airborne.

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Army Myths: Don’t Lock Your Knees

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Army has experienced the mind-numbing, painfully long formation where you are forced to stand at the position of parade rest (or attention) for long periods of time, often under the hot sun. Before the event, the phrase “don’t lock your knees” will be uttered over and over again by NCOs and the E4-Mafia like a meditative mantra. In these long formations, someone will invariably pass out, spilling over onto the floor in dramatic fashion. Then a soldier or two will drag the victim to the back of the formation where he can’t be seen and left to recover, while the rest of the formation snickers at his misfortune with whispers of “shouldn’t have locked his knees.”

As a young soldier, I had no reason to disobey the orders of my more experienced NCOs, so whenever I stood in a formation, I made a conscious effort not to lock my knees. “Locking my knees”, as I understood it, was standing in a manner in which my legs were completely straight, the knee joint “locking” back so the bones of my lower and upper legs support one another, requiring no “work” from the muscles of my body to maintain balance and position. Locking the knees somehow disturbs the blood flow process, resulting in the fainting solider phenomenon.

It turns out the medical science behind “don’t lock your knees” doesn’t exactly hold up. While the advice to avoid locking knees is widespread – even outside of military communities – the actual cause of fainting is usually loss of blood flow to the brain which can be brought on by any number of things, but the act of locking ones knees has nothing to do with passing out. While the act of locking one’s knees and maintaining a rigid, completely unmoving position for a long period of time may interrupt proper blood flow, the act of locking the knees alone does not by itself cause fainting spells.

As this very scientific YouTube video demonstrates, locking your knees can interfere with proper blood flow from the legs, which in turn might result in less blood flow to the brain and ipso facto a soldier passes out.

I can remember foolishly standing in formation, trying my best to maintain a “knees slightly bent” position (as the position of attention calls for, after all) and feeling my knees “hover” inside of my pants as I awkwardly tried to maintain a good-enough but not-quite straight position. For sure, it kept me occupied, and maybe that mental occupation is what prevents fainting spells. I remember another occasion though, while deployed to Iraq, where I was standing in a change of command ceremony and started to feel nauseous and dizzy. I started having a cold sweat and I felt like I was going to pass out. I knew not to lock my knees and wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. Thankfully, the formation ended before I took an embarrassing spill, but thinking back on it, the likely cause was dehydration, as just about everyone had dysentery at the time.

Like most Army myths, this one will continue to spread – and I have a feeling that some will aggressively defend it as fact, despite the lack of hard scientific evidence. While locking your knees might affect the flow of blood, there is no evidence that says that it actually does.

Thankfully, I’ve spoken with a few NCOs who have privately confessed that they’ve been locking their knees in formation for years – because it’s easier – and they’ve yet to pass out.

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Army Myths: There is no “right” way to lace your boots

One of the first things I learned as a new soldier was how to lace my boots. I remember sitting there with a boot tucked between my legs and holding the ends of a long black boot lace in each hand and asking the guy next to me if there was a “right” way to lace my boots.

“Yeah, left over right, the whole way up.”

Left over right, the whole way up.

Why?

Because “we always start with our left” or something like that.

For over a decade I have always laced my boots this way, left over right until complete. When I ask others what the “right” way to lace my boots is, they confirm that it is left over right.

It turns out this is another myth. DA PAM 670-1 says nothing about how the laces are to be crossed, only that:

According to the regulation, there is nothing wrong with going right over left, or going back and forth between the two, or – unfathomable – some kind of random design.

All this said, I’ve always done it left over right and I like the way it looks.

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Army Myths: Keeping your “head up” during the push-up

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Maybe this one isn’t as rampant as others, but if you’ve ever been docked a push-up during an APFT for not “keeping your head up,” then this can become a significant emotional event.

I’ve heard NCOs and officers grading an APFT consistently make the correction “keep your head up” and not count a repetition because the soldier didn’t keep his head up, or wasn’t looking forward during a push-up repetition.

While I’m not sure if there is a true belief out there that the push-up only counts if your head is kept up, I’ve heard people say you should keep your head up because it presents a more “confident” appearance while conducting a push-up, as opposed to having your face staring into the dirt.

In the actual instructions, there is nothing said about the position of the head.

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Army Myths: You don’t need 100 hours to get a Volunteer Medal

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[Update 29Jul15: The new AR covering 600-8-22 changed this up, and now you DO need either 500 hours of service or service over 3 years. Total bummer, really)

The Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal (MOVSM) is one of those unique awards that a soldier can get to build their rack outside of the usual suspects (AAMs, ARCOMs, NCOPD ribbons, etc.). Although it doesn’t require anything particularly heroic (Silver Star) or unusual (Prisoner of War Medal), I’d say it’s a pretty rare award to get. I don’t think I’ve actually every seen someone with one.

That said, I’ve heard it talked about a lot.

Especially at FRG meetings.

In those meetings, someone will usually remind soldiers to “log their hours” to get to a grand total of 100 hours so that they can be recommended for the MOVSM.

You do not need to rack up 100 hours of volunteer work to be recommended for the medal. In fact, there is no set requirement for how much volunteer work must be accomplished in order to get the award.

Let’s go to the doctrine:

From 600-8-22 Military Awards:

‎www.apd.army.mil_pdffiles_r600_8_22.pdf-1

It’s clear that the award is intended to be presented to recognize volunteer service over an extended period of time, not a flash in the pan act of altruism. It is at the approval authority’s discretion as to what measure of service meets the criteria for this award, but there is absolutely no target mark that signifies meeting the minimum requirement for the award.

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Army Myths: No eye-pro, No SGLI

“Dude, there was a guy over in 1st Battalion that died in a motorcycle accident, and listen to this shit – he wasn’t wearing a reflective belt, so they denied his family the SGLI.”

“Why do you have to wear eye-protection, you ask? Well first of all, if god-forbid you should get shrapnel to the face and you go blind, the Army won’t cover your medical expenses because you weren’t wearing proper PPE. Roger?”

Since I’ve been in the Army, I’ve heard variations of the above myth. Like most Army myths, there are never any first or even second-hand accounts; just stories about unidentifiable guys in other units. For the unitiated, Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, or SGLI, is the life insurance policy that all members of the Armed Forces have access to, and pretty much everyone elects to enroll in. The full coverage is $400,000, and will be paid to a beneficiary upon a servicemember’s death. As the myth goes, if a servicemember should die – be it as a result of hostile fire or simply an accident – the SGLI will not be paid if it is discovered that the servicemember wasn’t wearing a piece of normally required equipment. In most cases, I’ve heard it used in reference to motorcycle accidents and not wearing the require PPE (personal protective equipment) to include a reflective belt or vest, or not wearing eye-protection or gloves on a mission.

Of course, this is complete nonsense. It says so directly on the SGLI website on a page titled Myths and Rumors about SGLI/VGLI Insurance.

From the website:

True or False: SGLI won’t pay if I die while wearing privately purchased body armor or a privately purchased helmet.

False: SGLI claims are paid regardless of body armor or helmet type. Wearing body armor or a helmet is not a requirement for a SGLI claim to be paid.

True or False: SGLI or VGLI won’t pay if I die in a motor vehicle accident or airplane accident and wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

False: SGLI or VGLI claims are paid regardless of whether the member was or was not wearing a seatbelt.

True or False: SGLI or VGLI won’t pay if I die in a motorcycle accident and I was not wearing a helmet.

False: Your SGLI or VGLI proceeds will be paid to your beneficiary or beneficiaries, regardless of whether you were or were not wearing a helmet.

I’m almost certain that some devious NCO started this myth as a method to try to get his guys to wear the prescribed uniform. And like many other Army myths, this is one that soldiers will defend vigorously as being true, getting red in the face speaking about it, despite not having actually met or read about it actually happening.

Additionally, if it were the case that a beneficiary was denied SGLI because their loved one who died in service of their country wasn’t wearing a reflective belt, I’d like to think much hell would be raised.

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Army Myths: Road guards are the second person(s) in the far left and right rank

Ask anyone who the default road guard is during a movement formation where no road guards have been designated and they are likely to say that it is the second guy in the far left and right rank.

I’ve seen it at every unit I’ve been in. We’re marching somewhere, the cadence caller shouts “Road Guards, Post!” and there is a short delay until some salty Team Leader yells at the soldiers in that second spot, telling them that they are the default road guards. Then those two soldiers will run to the intersection, getting there moments before the main body gets there and while nearly getting themselves killed in the process.

Well, this isn’t doctrine.

It’s not a regulation. It’s just a standard operation procedure that appears to have been pretty much adopted Army-wide.

Reference to the practice cannot be found in TC 3-21.5 (Drill and Ceremony) or FM 7-22 (Army Physical Readiness Training). The best I’ve been able to find are some Air Force ROTC videos that reference the practice of assigning dedicated road guard prior to the movement (you know, the ones that get to wear the reflective vest or carry the flashlight).

True, this really isn’t a myth, but I’ve watched NCOs lose their minds when that second person didn’t react instantly to the command of execution of “POST!”

Best practice would be to assign road guard prior to any movement than relying on a shaky Army-wide standard operating procedure.

Also, related.

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Army Myths: The way you’re supposed to wear the blue cord (infantry)

Pay day activities, uniform inspection, whatever the event, when infantrymen start putting on their dress uniform, there will always be “that guy” who insists there is a certain way that the blue cord is supposed to be worn. I’ve seen senior NCOs pinch both sides of the cord with their thumb and index finger to test for “thickness,” insisting that the “fat” side goes to the rear (or to the front, who knows). I’ve also heard others say that the loop that grasps the button is supposed to be facing a certain direction as it comes off of the cord.

This is another myth. DA 670-1 indicates how the blue cord is worn, and it’s pretty simple:

DA 670-1

It’s worn on the shoulder, attached to the button. No thickness, no directions. Pretty simple.

Related: turning the buttons of the Class A’s/ASUs a certain way so that the eagles on them face this or that direction in times of war. More nonsense that gets passed around from generation to generation.

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Army Myths: Saluting a Medal of Honor recipient

Snow Salute

It is common knowledge that if someone is awarded the Medal of Honor, then that person will be saluted by other service members – whether the awardee is an officer or not. In fact, it is again, common knowledge, that even officers are obliged to salute enlisted Medal of Honor recipients. Soldiers I’ve known joke about this phenomenon unendingly, excited about the prospect of having the general “salute my ass.”

Well, it turns out that this common knowledge simply isn’t true, but a myth that has persisted for as long as I’ve been in the Army, and I’m sure much longer.

True, a Medal of Honor recipient gains access to a bevy of entitlements (see AR 600-8-22), including a supplemental uniform allowance, special identification cards (which brings other benefits), full military honors at burial, and admission to the military service academies for their children outside of the normal quotas (it would be interesting to see if anyone has ever done that, actually). But in no regulation does it say anything about saluting a Medal of Honor recipient.

Commonly, I’ve heard from soldiers “you’re not saluting the soldier, you’re saluting the award,” which sounds like it allows for this loophole, but unfortunately saluting an award also isn’t a “real thing.”

Like other myths I’ve covered, the root is rarity. Passing a Medal of Honor recipient is an extremely rare event, mostly because of the few that are still alive, most choose to get out of the military. For most of us, the closest we come into contact is the forever empty space at the PX parking lot reserved for “Medal of Honor Recipient.” CPT Swenson recently returned to duty, and I’m sure passing him in the parking lot must be a “significant emotional event” for the field grade officers who are waiting for him to salute as they walk past each other.

All this said, the myth is so ingrained and reverence for the Medal of Honor is so high that even the saltiest Command Sergeant Major might not make that on the spot correction. As a military, we simply don’t encounter Medal of Honor recipients enough to really know what to do. If there were Medal of Honor recipients all over the place, and everyone was saluting everyone, I’m sure we’d tighten it up and start digging into the regulations and stop the madness.

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