One of the best things about the military is that, no matter what you do, you’re going to get yelled at – especially when you’re a bunch of miscreant, criminal assholes like we are. Constantly testing to see what we can get away with, constantly learning that it isn’t much, forgetting the less, and trying it again. Hope, or maybe stupidity, springs eternal.
It wasn’t so bad in the rear (stateside), but overseas it was another matter altogether. When your primary focus is to successfully conduct combat mission and destroy the enemy, you’d think that everybody’s concern for your rigorous adherence to grooming standards would diminish, but no; it doesn’t. You still get yelled at, and we still do stupid things.
In hindsight, I have concluded that when you’re forced to abide by strict rules, you feel like some sort of accomplished rebel if you can bend them a bit, or even break them. But heaven knows there aren’t many areas where you can do that. Failure to behave a certain way means you’ll probably get charged. Failure to be on time means you WILL be charged. Failure to offer salutes will also get you in trouble.
So what do we do? We gripe about and question the most ridiculous minutia and see what we can get away with. First thing: rank chevrons. Obviously we wear in them in the states, because it’s grossly obvious if we don’t. But Iraq, why bother? We spend most of our time either hiding in our rooms/tents/racks(begs), or wearing a flak vest – which completely obscures them. There’s really no point. In fact, there’s good incentive to NOT wear them. The weight of the flak vest continually grinds their metal backings into your collarbone. So forget it. We stopped wearing them.
Well, then we got yelled at, so that didn’t work out so well. But for some reason, people tried it anyway – again and again. A few of these guys were clearly immune to being yelled at. I guess we all were to some extent, but they could take an ass chewing like a champ and just keep on doing what they were doing. They knew – perhaps better than us – that no NCO or Staff NCO in his right mind would charge them with anything, though they certainly could: disobeying a lawful order. Maybe disrespect, too, or something like that.
Another big issue was blousing our boots. Sure, it looks less ratty if we don’t, but after hours on end wearing those things (like every waking hour), it got old, and extremely uncomfortable. So some guys stopped wearing those, too. Curiously, it was also the same guys that tried to get away without wearing chevrons. If it was dark, they usually got away with it, but never out during the day. Somebody would yell at them, they’d pretend they hadn’t even noticed, and quickly blouse them back up. It’s too obvious to overlook.
And then there were the cuffs of our blouses (shirts). According to regulation, we could not just cuff them over once to keep them off our hands and wrists, no matter how annoying they were. That was one of those rules that we followed when higher ups were around, and quickly broke as soon as they were out of sight. We didn’t like being encumbered.
Perhaps the worst matter, overall, was haircuts. In the states, it’s simply a matter of walking or driving the short distance to any one of a number of barbershops. And the one on base used to give us cuts for a mere $4.50, which was awesome. They were usually pretty good, though I knew guys who swore they could tell I got my cut at the PX barbershop. They gladly paid three times that much out in town – and looked just as stupid as I did. Maybe they went there for the whole barbershop experience. Beats me.
But in Iraq, it’s another matter. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with a set of clippers suddenly considers himself a barber. And if he even mentioned once that he knew how to cut hair, Marines would crawl out of the woodwork like rats, scrounge up a pair of clippers, and proceed to demand every second of his free time with haircuts. None of the, by the way, looked good. If they were really crappy, we called them barracks cuts – sure sign that the wearer had been too lazy to get a haircut over the weekend, so lopped it off with moderate assistance in his room Sunday night. They looked awful. But, on all the bases I’ve been on, there were never any barbers to be found. Some chopped off all their hair, some shaved their heads, but a number of us just neglected it altogether.
Without fail, we’d receive warning that they were approaching too long.
“Hey Marine. That when you get back on base, you need to get that shit on your head cut. You’re starting to look like a real shitbird. You got that? If you don’t, I’ll come cut it for you, and you’re not going to like that.”
We assured them that a cut would be our first order of business. Right. The warnings continued, and nobody really ever did anything. The yelling just got louder. But eventually they’d no longer yell at the Marine, they’d go find one superior or another and yell at him instead. Then we’d have to do something about it – it all rolled back down onto us.
I knew a guy that was so desperate to rebel against the Marine Corps grooming and uniform standard that he rotated between offenses. If they yelled at him to get a haircut, he’d do it, but then stop wearing his chevrons. Then they’d yell at him to put them back on, so he would, and deliberately unblouse his boots. That would be spotted and corrected fairly quickly, so he’d be in good shape for a few days, at which point his hair would be out of regulation again and the cycle would start all over again. He did this almost continuously for seven months. On a side note, he was also a convicted murderer.
A few months into our first tour, I gathered that my unit wasn’t the only one struggling to get Marines to wear their chevrons at all times. It was base-wide. So common, in fact, that the battalion commander himself issued orders that trickled all the way back down to us: get caught without your chevrons, and you WILL be charged. Period. The easiest solution for these guys wasn’t what you would think. Instead of just putting them back on and not worrying about it, they adjusted their lifestyles to no longer go around people that would write them up and charge them. I consider it working ten times harder to break the rules than just actually follow them. The allure, I suppose, we that we were sticking it to the man. We called the magic chevrons. They command had gone so far as to claim that wearing them would help improve our chances of not getting hit. I have no idea where they conjured the idea of saying this, but it may have had something to do with the notion that a prepared Marine – that is a properly-attired Marine – is less likely to get blown up. IEDs, however, shred you no matter how stupid or sharp you look. Shrapnel, like bullets, do not discriminate.
I discovered some time later that these were by no means major in comparison to what was taking place in other units. One friend’s platoon, I learned, worked hard to carry melee weapons everywhere they went – to include maces, battle axes, hatchets, ice picks, and gurka knives. A number of them also discarded their own gear and wore Iraqi load bearing vests. And even carried AK-47s instead of M-16s. My rebellious addition of a “thank you for not making me kill you” sticker to the door of my humvee paled in comparison to their antics.
The second tour brought its fair share of similar problems, but they weren’t as pronounced or absurd as the first. This time, it was the magic throat protector – the flak vest attachment that strangled the lower portion of your trachea. Uncomfortable, yes, but truly helpful against the SMALLEST pieces of debris and shrapnel. Against bullets however, forget it. You were going to get hit.
We did one mission when we escorted the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) commander to the middle of nowhere. When we got there, the MEU Sergeant Major sought me out and started screaming at me. Initially I had no idea why, until he bellowed that one of my Marines wasn’t wearing his throat protector. If he caught him like that again, he’d run ME up a flagpole. I took it like a champ. “Yes, Sarn’t Majr.” When he stormed away, I walked over to my Marine. “Dude, you’re killing me. When they’re around, just button it up, okay?” They were horridly uncomfortable, and restricted movement. In fact, we’d repeatedly turned down additional personal body armor because it so restricted our range of motion that we couldn’t even aim our rifles correctly, much less move about the truck with any sort of ease. 60 pounds of crap was plenty, I thought.
One piece of “flair” that I was not anticipating would cause any problems was a little US flag I glued to my humvee door. We were, after all, Americans, right? Well, I was told to take it down after awhile. And the entire MEU was told that we were forbidden to fly American flags on our vehicles or our persons. I am not entire sure why. That became a major point of contention on my third tour when we were no longer permitted to fly US flags on BASE. The commander’s explanation was that we were now no longer victorious conquerors, but visitors on Iraqi soil. They hoisted the Iraqi flag on our base, and put the US flag below it. At our training center we held out for as long as we could, but when the MEU sergeant major came by for a visit, that was the first thing he noticed – and ordered us to lower our own colors. We did, but then put them back up as soon as he left. I wasn’t serving in the Iraqi army, but the US Marine Corps. If I couldn’t even fly the flag, what was the point in even being there?
I saw a photograph recently of some Russian troops in Ossetia, and their appearance drove him to me just why these various people were so concerned with our uniforms and physical appearance. The Russians had beards, disheveled and long hair, and wore a wide assortment of boots, white socks, gray socks, and even tennis shoes. They looked like idiots – or maybe uniformed terrorists.
And in reality, if left to our own devices, half of us wouldn’t have worn shirts, would have preferred shorts or no pants at all, flip flops, headbands, peace t-shirts, long hair, and an assortment of decorations indicating our religious preference, opinions on necrophilia, war, and even how much we hated everybody else.
As much as I truly hate to admit it, the higher ups were on to something. If they gave us an inch, we’d have taken well over a mile and run around in medieval armor with spiked clubs, looking like the rebels from the movie “Waterworld.” That would have been behavior and appearance unfitting a Marine. We’re not angry peasants brandishing burning torches and pitchforks, we were professionals. Unfortunately, we needed to be reminded of this often.
Seen on a Hungarian machine gunner’s helmet in Iraq: “Fight Brave, Die Last.”
Seen on a Marine’s fleece beanie: “Arm the Homeless.”
But I say this: “Fight Pretty, Die Anyway.”
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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