The Command Sergeant Major’s Nightmare

machine gunner vietnam
Patrol Base Diamond II in Vietnam, 1969 - Archive Photo of the Day - Stripes

I saw this picture in Stars and Stripes (online) and kept it open in my browser for a few days. I kept coming back to it. It’s one of those “cool” war pictures that came out of Vietnam – the sunglasses, cigar, ammunition around the neck and machine gun hanging over the shoulder. He even has a dust brush in his helmet band. “Fuck it,” he’s saying, “I’ll do it.”

It looks cool, but it’s a Command Sergeant Major’s nightmare.

Back in OCS, a well-respected CSM was speaking to the class shortly before we graduated, instilling us with his parting words. He wanted to talk about standards and discipline – surprise! The movie ‘Restrepo’ and its companion, the book ‘War’ by Sebastian Junger had recently come out and he wanted to use these to paint his words.

He couldn’t remember the author’s name, but was pretty sure it was Sebastian Bach.

I remember sitting there in the front row, biting the inside of my lip to keep from laughing. There was something about the forcefulness of him saying again and again that it was Sebastian Bach that got to the absurdity of it all.

Anyway, he said he was able to stomach Restrepo and enjoyed it, but couldn’t finish War because he kept wanting to throw the book across the room because of all of the glaring discipline infractions he kept reading about.

He then went into a story about meeting a fresh 2LT outside of a dusty chow hall in Afghanistan. As the 2LT approached, the CSM gave him the usual once-over, checking out his uniform and appearance.

“He had these boots,” the CSM recalled, “that looked odd. And as he got closer, I could see that they weren’t Army issue boots at all, or even a pair of authorized aftermarket boots. They were some fancy brand of boots, that had been spray-painted tan to make them look passable.”

The CSM went on to talk about why shaving is professional, rebutting the thoughts in some of our heads “but special forces!” by telling us we’re not in Special Forces.

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Uniforms: PTs and headphones

drawings of army physical fitness uniform
Army hipsters
Army hipsters

An awkward conversation with the Division CSM. Fort Bragg. 2004.

CSM: “SGT G, are paratroopers allowed to wear headphones while wearing PTs?”

SGT Gomez: “No, it’s a safety hazard. They can’t hear traffic around them.”

CSM: “And what about in the gym?”

SGT Gomez: “Uh, well, I guess it’s not a problem, then.”

CSM: “WRONG! Why would it be okay for paratroopers to wear headphones in the gym if they can’t wear them outdoors?”

SGT Gomez: Said like a young buck E5 who thinks he knows what the hell he’s talking about, “Well, Division Pamphlet 600-2 doesn’t say anything about wearing headphones with PTs, Sergeant Major..”

CSM:”Could you wear ear muffs with PTs?

SGT Gomez: “Well, no.”

CSM: “Exactly. SGT G, IT’S NOT A PART OF THE UNIFORM! Just because the Division PAM doesn’t explicitly say you can’t wear headphones with PTs doesn’t mean it is authorized.”

I had this very awkward conversation with the 82d Airborne Division’s CSM (job requirement – be the scariest NCO in the Army). This was at a time when iPods were just starting to gain popularity and you were starting to see them more and more in gyms. Eventually soldiers started to wear them in the gym while lifting weights or doing cardio, and it became this CSM’s personal crusade to put an end to it.

“It’s not a part of the uniform.” Simple enough, and that line stuck with me ever since. I’ve repeated it to others as they were unrolling their headphones, ready to get their swoll on, only to have the wind taken out of their sails by an annoying (but necessary) on-the-spot correction.

Before going further, I want to make clear that I hate working out without music. I’ve had an iPod since the original was released in 2001 and have been building various workout playlists ever since. It’s a sad, sad day when I forget my headphones or iPod and have to workout and actually hear myself and the sounds around me. Gross. But, I won’t wear them in uniform because of that conversation with the CSM. I would LOVE IT if I could wear headphones with the IPFU.

But…

I could never bring myself to do it. The “standard” is in my blood. Since being back in the Army, I’ve noticed that soldiers don’t seem to have a problem wearing headphones with the uniform anymore. I’ve seen it at Fort Benning and I’ve seen it at Fort Hood and I have never seen anyone corrected for it.

In fairness to “things I hated about being a joe” and specifically having to follow someone’s instructions because of some hidden, mysterious regulation, I’ve done the research here to see what Army regulations actually say about it.

Well, AR 670-1 (Uniform Wear and Appearance) does not say anything specifically about headphones with the uniform. Guidance beyond what is prescribed is essentially left up to “the commander” (whoever that is) and he or she should strive to ensure soldiers in that command present a “conservative military appearance.” And most commanders delegate uniform policy to their senior enlisted advisor, the CSM (or 1SG).

Digging a little further, I found this memorandum “Uniform and Appearance Policy” dated June 29, 2012 and signed by the III Corps Commander (relevant to Fort Hood) that states, categorically, that:

Headphones are authorized for wear with the IPFU or civilian attire while conducting physical training inside and installation fitness center. However, headphones must be removed prior to departing the physical fitness center.

Holy smokes! I can use headphones at an installation gym while wearing the IPFU! Well, at least at Fort Hood.

My world just imploded.

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