Grunt Lingo: Chow

lots of chicken on a lunch tray

Waiting around is just part of being in the Army. And when the only thing you’re waiting on is an arbitrary date and a wake-up, life tends to revolve around chow. “Chow” is the military’s catch-all term for food. You’re never going to breakfast, lunch, or dinner; you’re going to “chow.”

I hate chow.

Or rather, I hate the term “chow.”

I heard it on my first day in the Army, bitter Drill Sergeants at 30th AG telling us they’d get us “through chow” as soon we got off the bus. I understood that they meant we’d be eating, but I had only ever heard the word chow spoken in reference to dog food.

The sign above the door clearly read “Dining Facility” but the Drill Sergeant insisted on calling it the “chow hall.”

Years would pass, and I’d eat chow every day, telling others I was going to chow. At worst, I’d insist to my wife that we “grab some chow” before beginning the day’s adventures on a vacation.

There is something about the ultra-utilitarian nature of the word, stripping food down to its most basic element, nourishment, that makes it so unappealing. Despite its poor reputation, military food can be quite good at times, and by calling it chow, it somehow manifests itself in my mind as slop or gruel to be shoveled onto a flimsy tray before spilling over onto my hand and the floor.

It’s a term I’ve never heard people outside of the military use, yet it persists within and outside of the military among veterans with a stranglehold unparalleled compared to other military terms, like “squared-away” or “latrine.” When I was attending college with other veterans, we’d grab each other up – some of us separated from the service by over a decade – to go down to the halal cart on the corner to grab “chow.”

Its pervasiveness is absolute, and I don’t know its history or when it started, though I’d guess that it goes back to at least the Vietnam era, where we get a lot of our best terminology.

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Chow, Mail, and Wi-Fi: Pillars of Modern Soldier Morale

army cooks creed
Field Chow

The other day I was having a conversation with another soldier about morale, as soldiers tend to do halfway through a deployment. We were having a back-and-forth on the pros and cons of adopting different policies “for the sake of morale.” At some point, I brought up the ancient “three pillars of soldier morale”: chow, mail, and free time.

Now, I’ve actually heard “chow, mail, and pay” as the three before, and that might be true, too. But rules of three are important, and pay is not something junior level leadership can really influence (unless it’s taking it away), so I like to think of the big three as chow, mail, and free time.

I don’t know where these “pillars” originated, although I remember reading about them in reference to the Korean War. General Ridgway was a big proponent of the big three. He was keen on ensuring his soldiers got hot chow at least twice a day while fighting the war – and to this day there is no question that hot chow is a morale booster – whether the soldier is in the field or at war. MREs are modern miracles, but there is nothing better than a “fresh” meal served hot in an austere environment.

Mail has always been a morale booster – especially care packages. For most of our history, “mail” meant physical mail; letters and notes, sealed in envelopes and traveling across the world, from the kitchen table in Indiana to a fighting position in Da Nang, Verdun, or Helmand province. For today’s modern soldiers, the physical letter has been aggressively outmatched by email, and to a greater extent, Facebook. I haven’t written a single hard-copy letter since arriving in July – I wrote a half-dozen a day in Iraq in 2003. Take away my ability to get online though, and I would revert back to writing letters, without a doubt.

Free time, or rather, unstructured time, is time for soldiers to do whatever it is that pleases them – movies, video games, reading, staring at the wall for hours – whatever. The point is, if a soldier’s time is micro-managed from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed, he will slowly become bitter. For leaders, striking a balance between structured and unstructured time is important, and more of an art than a science. There is no perfect formula. It’s all based on understanding the context, which changes daily. A leader has to sniff out the rhythms and know when to give it some gas and when to let up (and when to shift to neutral!).

Going back to the conversation, when I brought up the classic three pillars, this soldier retorted that “this isn’t World War II or Vietnam,” meaning this model of morale is outdated for the modern soldier. While I certainly agree that this generation of soldiers (like every generation of soldiers) is different from those of the past, I always considered the morale model to be solid and enduring. Is hot chow, reliable mail, and a degree of free time not enough anymore? Do we need to ensure high-speed internet is available at the front lines? Should leaders cave at the requests to relax uniform standards for the sake of “morale?”

My immediate reaction to the idea that today’s soldiers require a different morale model was incredulity – not possible. My thought process has always been that if the big three are being satisfied – chow, mail, free time – then a soldier has no reason to have low morale, personal issues notwithstanding.

I let the thought stew for a moment and then, with a flash of humanity, thought that maybe – just maybe – it is possible that for today’s soldier, a different model is required. Context is important here, and while every deployment experience is different (none of my three have been similar), it can generally be said that unless you are on a forward COP or invading a country, counterinsurgency or stability operations lend themselves to a higher living standard. Amenities are plenty. Hot showers and hot chow are the norm, not the exception. Mail arrives regularly. War is famously boring, and soldiers usually have ample free time. Those three pillars being met, is it possible for a soldier to then have low morale because he wants more, or that he has grown accustomed to those good things? Like an addict, do we need to inject a stronger medicine to get our fix?

Again, context matters. All of this can be wiped away in an instant with a more austere environment. But I do wonder about the ramifications of a generation of soldiers who are accustomed to bringing their smartphones with them to the field and being at all times, a click away from home. Maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe it’s the worst thing ever.

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A note on Blue Falcons

a drawing of a blue falcon
From *Mewberries @ deviantART
From *Mewberries @ deviantART

While in basic training, I became quickly aware that the Army had its own specialized language. Special words and phrases flowed freely from the drill sergeants to be quickly appropriated by us privates and used liberally like we had only ever spoken them.

“Good job, that’s squared away.”

“Well would you look at this muldoon!”

“Go wash your booger pickers and get ready for chow.”

“Don’t be a buddy f@!%er!”

That last one was especially important in basic training where the group was often punished for the sins of the individual. If someone messed up, brining the wrath of the drill sergeants upon us, he would often be deemed a “buddy f@!%er.”

Not once through basic training or Airborne School do I remember hearing the term blue falcon as another way to say buddy f@!%er without being as vulgar.

And then I was assigned to 3d Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment (Blue Falcons). 1st Battalion was the Red Falcons and 2nd Battalion was the White Falcons. We were the Blue Falcons.

It still didn’t register with me because I had never heard the term before. Then, one day while waiting in line at the Blue Falcon Dining Facility, someone explained it to me. I was completely dumbfounded. I wondered how long the term had been in use and when our Regiment chose its naming convention.

Today, I hear the term Blue Falcon used all the time. People are having fun with it. 3/325 AIR has since been re-designated 2/508 PIR (this occuring during realignment in the mid-2000s).

Still, whenever I hear someone throw around ‘blue falcon,’ I use it as an opportunity to give them a quick history lesson on what was once a deadly airborne infantry formation.

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