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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“I’m Proud to be an American.”

“So what are you, in the Marines or something?” This was his cold open. His head rested against the seat. He looked straight, eyes hidden behind large brown sunglasses.

“No, I’m in the Army,” I said.

“Are you like, coming back from Iraq?”

“Yes, pretty much.”

“Oh, I do not agree with that at all. I’m glad you’re back home.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“Do you want a Bloody Mary or anything? I need a Bloody Mary.”

He was probably in his late twenties. Well dressed, with a day’s stubble on his face. He seemed exhausted. He told me he was hungover from a night of partying and heading back home to New York.

“So did you have to shoot anyone?” he asked with the casual air of a mother asking her child if he had homework today.

“Yes, I fired my rifle.”

“Oh my god,” he said, finally looking towards me, flipping up his sunglasses, “did you kill anyone?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s crazy. I could never do that.”

Since this was the first time I was going home on leave after war, I was wearing my dress uniform. It was issued to me before I even began basic training. I weighed 140 pounds then. This was three years later and I had put on 20 pounds. The uniform was tight, but looked good. It felt very strange to be traveling like this, but I wanted my parents to experience it. I kind of wanted to experience it too.

The flight attendant delivered the Bloody Mary. Her vest was full of pins. Most were variations of American flags and yellow ribbons. Some were of military units I was familiar with. She placed a coke on my tray.

“My son is in the 101st Airborne Division. Thank you very much for you service,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

My new friend leaned forward and eagerly stirred his drink with a piece of green celery and took a large sip.

“So do you have to go back?”

“Not anytime soon,” I said.

“Well that’s good.”

He became more talkative. He talked about his party last night and the partying he is going to do in New York when he gets there. He says he’s tired of it all. I don’t say much back to him.

My uniform is too tight.

I spend most of the flight looking out the window. It’s a short flight. North Carolina to New York.

The pilot announces we are making our approach. The flight attendant gets on the microphone and tells us to raise our seats and place our trays in their upright position to prepare for landing.

At the point in which she would normally say to sit back and relax, we’ll be on the ground shortly, she instead announces that we are privileged to have a real American soldier on board, just back from Iraq. This gets a round of applause.

As the applause dies out, she begins to sing.

From the lakes of Minnesota
To the hills of Tennessee

“Holy shit, this is crazy!” my now drunk friend says, excitedly.

Across the plains of Texas
From sea to shining sea

I can see the flight attendant at the front of the plane, singing into the microphone. Heads are turning in their seats with wide smiles to see me. My uniform suddenly feels huge.

From Detroit down to Houston
And New York to L.A.
Where’s pride in every American heart
And it’s time we stand and say

Everyone is singing now. My friend is looking at me with a wide grin.

That I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.

The passengers erupt into applause and the plane lands a moment later.

I’m in the back of the plane, sweating. I take my time and will be one of the last to get off.

My friend gets his luggage and wishes me luck. He disappears into the rush of people getting off the plane.

I make my way to the front of the plane and thank the flight attendant as I get off. She shakes my hand but doesn’t say anything special. I get the impression that this experience wasn’t unique. She’s done this before.

My parents are in the terminal. They look impressed with my uniform.

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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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Winter is Coming: And so is the Army’s new appearance bible

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This is a piece I wrote back in December for another outlet that never got published. It’s been sitting on my hard drive since then and since Iraq: Ten Years Ago ended (and training picked up) I haven’t been able to write as much. So, here it is.

“The Army is a uniformed service where discipline is judged, in part, by the manner in which a soldier wears a prescribed uniform, as well as by the individual’s personal appearance.” – Chapter 1, AR 670-1

The regulation covering things like haircuts, fingernails, and the way soldiers wear their uniforms is being updated for the first time in almost ten years. For the hundreds of Army regulations in circulation, few are referenced more frequently than Army Regulation 670-1: Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia. It prescribes – in painstaking detail – exactly how each and every item is to be worn and the manner in which soldiers should present themselves in order to project a professional military appearance.

The regulation is thorough and exact. An example, from the section on male haircuts:

“The hair on top of the head must be neatly groomed. The length and bulk of the hair may not be excessive or present a ragged, unkempt, or extreme appearance. The hair must present a tapered appearance. A tapered appearance is one where…”

And it continues on for another 145 words.

The last revision came before the adoption of the much maligned grayish/greenish/blueish Advanced Combat Uniform which blends in well with your grandmother’s couch. The new revision will include the proper wear and appearance of the ACU as well as other pieces of clothing that have been issued since the last update, when the force was arguably busy fighting two wars. Currently, the wear and appearance of those items are buried in cryptic ALARACT (All Army Activity) messages which are hard to read and even harder to find.

The updated AR 670-1 will be welcomed by non-commissioned officers throughout the Army who have to answer the question daily, “Hey Sergeant, how am I supposed to wear this?”

Besides updating the wardrobe, hints at what to expect have leaked out, and all signs point to more restrictive regulations concerning grooming and behavior standards, which has raised the ire of some who lament the return of a “garrison” Army.

Some of the expected changes include:

-Tattoos cannot be visible above the neck line or extend below the wrist line or hands while wearing Army uniforms
-No eating, drinking, or smoking while walking
-No talking on cell phones while walking
-No gold teeth or “grillz”
-Male soldiers will have to shave their faces, even on weekends when off duty

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fostered an environment where if a potential policy does not immediately impact the ability of the warfighter to do his or her job – win the nation’s wars – then it is dismissed as irrelevant and a distraction to the force. That seems to make sense, and it is a hard argument to counter, especially to the junior sergeants and officers who have shouldered the burden of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those soldiers, by virtue of their wartime service, feel emboldened to decide what is relevant and what is nonsense in terms of “Big Army” policy and its effect on war-fighting.

Without question, training and preparing for the “unforgiving minute” should be the focus of policy and regulation. But to categorically dismiss anything that doesn’t have a direct relevance to the guy shooting the enemy presents an unrealistic burden on the force – one that can never be met.

Soldiering is a process, not an end. Discipline is developed – especially among young men and women – through tough standards that are rigidly enforced. Keeping a neat haircut or shaving on the weekends won’t make you shoot straighter. But general discipline over time inculcates pride in the profession of arms, which builds confidence that spills over to other areas, like training.

The popular narrative right now is that of a “wartime” Army that is fantastic at fighting, but is about to shift to a “garrison” Army akin to that of the 1990s that is more concerned with looking good. This narrative is fueled in small part by opinion pieces saying such, but is really getting around through military-themed internet memes and satire blogs that are insanely popular with troops.

This narrative has legs because it idolizes the soldier who has gone to war – which is one of the driving forces to join in the first place – while protecting the soldier from restrictive “garrison policies” when he or she returns home. The narrative assumes a zero sum environment, where a force that concerns itself with tattoos and haircuts cannot simultaneously train as well for war.

The fallacy is that going to war does not necessarily make you good at war. Tough, realistic training prepares you for war. Going to war provides experience. Showing up is good, but as the Army football team demonstrates yearly in the Army-Navy Game, showing up isn’t always good enough.

Interestingly, it was the Army that emerged from the 1990s that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and by many accounts, that Army performed those invasions exceptionally well. It is the following years of counterinsurgency and “surges” whose efficacy is being called into question, those years when we became a “wartime” Army, and those “garrison” standards were shed.

When I spoke with a friend and senior NCO about this, he offered some candid analysis, stating: “They (junior NCOs) aren’t as good as some say they are. They can’t maneuver over complex terrain. They can get in a vehicle, drive to an objective, do something, and then return to the forward operating base and hit the chow hall. The discipline that made the invasion Army good spilled over into everything we did back then, and that’s why we were so successful.”

On the role of the Army, he continued “Moreover, the Army has a responsibility to think about things other than shooting bad guys. Our appearance and actions in America are how we garner trust from the public. Our persona as a force has to be palatable to most of America to continue to enjoy the relationship that we have now.”

Taking the long view, that “garrison” Army looks pretty darn good. And they could fight, too.

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Uniforms: PTs and headphones

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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Garrison soldiers, field soldiers, and missing the point

Garrison vs. Field: An imaginary distinction.

“He’s good in the field, but he sucks in garrison.”

I saw this story last week, and it bummed me out. ‘82nd Airborne Paratroopers Unhappy with Iraq, Afghanistan Withdrawals.

Paratroopers like to fight. They like to go to war. But I was saddened by the tone in this report, suggesting that soldiers fear a return to a ‘garrison’ Army, one in which they won’t be doing real work, but instead, focused on things like area beautification and the ‘ol dog and pony show. It’s a strange fear, since, for most of these soldiers, they never really experienced a garrison Army.

One soldier reports that he wants to do his job and he can only do that while deployed.

That sentiment is echoed throughout the article, although, the younger soldiers seem to fear garrison life more than the older ones (who are on their umpteenth deployment and wouldn’t mind a little more family time).

The idea forwarded is that being deployed constitutes real work, while being back home does not. It is easy to understand where this attitude comes from. For those who join the Army looking for action and adventure, garrison life is a distraction and boring. I suppose time spent training in the field doesn’t count as strict garrison, and would qualify as a cut above pure garrison life (whatever that is), but still short of an operational deployment. But even time spent out in the field might be a downer. No one in the field is out there trying to shoot you.

Sadly, this eagerness to deploy to do ‘real work’ suggests that being back home isn’t taken as seriously. That is, true soldiering is something that happens only while deployed. Everything else is just nonsense. Not what I “signed up for.”

Well, Army leaders have nodded towards a coming realignment where discipline and old school garrison attitudes will soon be making a return. The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the current budget crisis and a downsizing Army suggests a coming higher level of accountability from soldiers across the ranks.

The attitude expressed in the article reminded me of my first year in the Army. The ‘Global War on Terror’ had just started, but only affected a relatively small number of units and soldiers. There was a sense in the air that something big was looming on the horizon, but we were still a ‘garrison’ Army transitioning to a ‘wartime’ Army.

In the Army in days of yore, attentive soldiers with an eye on rapid advancement understood that a premium was placed on the wear and appearance of the uniform. A clean, freshly starched set of BDUs with razor angles and boots that shone like black glass attracted praise from tough NCOs. Standing tall and looking good was not done simply for its own sake, but was often done seeking reward. Preferential treatment, additional passes, and compliments rained down from superiors, who wished to foster an environment where all soldiers took pride in their uniform and appearance.

There were other soldiers, though, who were having none of this. So much attention paid to an immaculately kept uniform detracted from other, more important tasks. ‘Real’ soldiers were good at their ‘real’ jobs, and in the case of the infantry, that is closing with and destroying the enemy. Real soldiers were good at core tasks and were good in the field – PT, shooting combatives – whereas garrison soldiers were good in the rear – well-manicured uniform, competes in soldier of the month/year/millennium boards, takes correspondence courses, has the right things in the right pockets, knows unit history, etc.

Field soldiers and garrison soldiers.

A garrison soldier in the field.

Such a stark division couldn’t last. Handsomely dressed gentlemen wouldn’t survive in the field (there are bugs). And raw grunts would smell bad and break all the fine china in the chow hall.

This led to the inbetweeners. These are the soldiers who fancied themselves grunts but saw the value in keeping a good uniform and understood pragmatically that standing-tall-looking-good-ought-to-be-in-hollywood was good for their professional advancement. But they were torn, because it seemed as if only one path could be chosen – field soldier or garrison soldier. For an infantryman, the choice would be obvious. But to choose the field route meant forfeiting the benefits of the garrison route.

To address this, the inbetweeners decided to maintain a field uniform and a garrison uniform. The field uniform would be the standard issue BDU, but not specially kept. They would never be starched and they would be worn ‘as is’ – wrinkles and all. Field boots would be occasionaly slathered with a chunk of Kiwi quickly rubbed in with the sole intent of preserving the leather. There was little shine, only a matte, dull look that absorbed the sun.

The garrison uniform, on the other hand, would be kept clean and starched heavily. On Monday mornings, it would be carefully removed from its protective plastic wrapper. As arms and legs penetrated the pressed uniform, thin sheets of heavy starch might crack off and fall to the ground, shattering like tiny pieces of glass. Soldiers could look at themselves in the mirror-reflection of their black boots, which may have been shined by hand, or by the boot guy on Yadkin road.

Garrison soldiers could rarely ‘put their arms down.’

A 0900 Monday morning formation was always one filled with grumbles, as the field soldiers scoffed at the parade-ready garrison soldiers, who of course, insisted that they were simply wearing their garrison uniform – not their ‘real’ uniform. Field soldiers retorted that uniforms are uniforms and there should be no distinction, to which the garrison soldiers responded with accusations of laziness and jealousy.

That battle didn’t end until the introduction of the ACU and the tan boot, which requires no shoe polish. It’s hard to make the ACU look good, so no one bothered trying.

I recall seeing starched DCUs while deployed. Relevant? No. Silly? Probably.

The point in all this is to highlight the long-held distinctions soldiers have had on garrison life and field life (whether ‘field’ means a week out in the woods, a couple of weeks at NTC or JRTC, or a year-long deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan).

Wherever soldiers are and whatever they are doing, that’s their real job.

Going forward, the challenge for leaders will be to convince a transitioning wartime Army that these ‘old school,’ basic soldiering skills are no less important than core skills related to a particular job. Leading soldiers in combat is important, yes, but should not be taken more seriously than leading soldiers in the rear, where the threat of death and injury exists just as it does while deployed (but with a different enemy).

Soldiering is soldiering, whether it is in the field or in the rear.

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