13. January 2005 · Comments Off on Memo: Field Guide to American Military Personnel · Categories: General

From: Sgt Mom
To: Media and Other Clueless Civilians
Re: Correctly Identifying Branch of Service

Mother: “There’s another dead bishop on the landing, vicar sergeant!”
Detective: Uh, Detective Parson, madam. I see… suffragen, or diocesan?
Mother: ‘Ow should I know?
Detective: It’s tattooed on the back o’ their neck.
(Monty Python’s Dead Bishop Sketch

Our branch of service is not, in fact, tattooed in such an inaccessible location, but one wouldn’t know it from the frequent and hilarious mis-identification in various media, all of which amuse and exasperate current and veteran military personnel no end. Foreigners can be cut a little bit of slack, especially those whose first language is NOT English, but there is no excuse for our own professional media creatures, who are supposed to pride themselves on their grasp of nuance and exactingly observed details….. because the service branch is machine-embroidered/stenciled in half-inch letters directly above the left-front pocket of the BDUs, cammies, utilities, fatigues, or whatever.. People, you look like pretty silly, when you make a mistake like that.

Know also that when you refer to Marines as soldiers, or label an Air Force forward air traffic controller as an Army infantryman, you have not only demonstrated a certain lack of attention to detail, but you have also managed to insult the respective members of the services involved. Somewhat chauvinistically, we all take pride in our respective services, and detest being mistaken for… ugh… THOSE OTHERS! While all the forest-green or desert cammies are worn by members of all services, there are certain differentiating criteria instantly apparent to the cognoscenti… unless you are at a considerable distance.

In the interests of informing and educating the general, non-military public, I offer the following additional tips for those who suddenly have to become conversant with the US military uniforms of the various branches, their ranks, and specialties.

1. The class A uniform, roughly equivalent to proper business attire should be sufficiently distinctive to the most casual observer; although the Marines and Navy do play fast and loose with some variations, generally the Air Force is wearing medium blue with aluminum-toned buttons, the Army dark green with brass buttons, and the Marines in a lighter sage-green with black buttons. The Navy is usually clad in black, when not in white, and occasionally in khaki. The last name of the person in the uniform is displayed discretely over the right-front pocket, opposite any display of ribbons denoting awards and decorations, which may be seen as a sort of color-coded professional resume. Do not presume to use the service members’ first name. If they have one, it is strictly reserved for close friends and family. The first name for public use is their rank, “Private, Lance Corporal, Sergeant, Captain, et cetera”, although upon closer acquaintance such familiarities as “Sarge” or “Ell-Tee” are somewhat acceptable.

2. The enlisted ranks for all services, usually displayed prominently on the upper sleeves of both the class A and utility uniforms differ significantly as to service. Generally the bigger the insignia, and the more stripes the higher the enlisted grade, although one can be forgiven for being a little foggy about just what equals what. (I myself have never quite worked out the equivalents between the Army private and specialist ranks.) Officer insignia are more standard, across the services, and therefore simpler, although the Navy again does interesting things with gold braid. Look for officer insignia on shirt collar, shoulder epaulettes or on headgear.

3. Standards of personal grooming are most strictly enforced in all services. Unless under extremely trying circumstances, male personnel are clean-shaven, although certain allowance is made for neat and short mustaches. Army and Marine males more often sport that particular haircut known as a high-and-tight, which appears as if they had shaved their heads entirely and then parked some small and short-furred dead rodent on the very top. Air Force and Navy men are not immune from this fashion, and it is occasionally seen among the more direct combat oriented specialties. At one point, Navy men were permitted to grow short beards, and sometimes Army Special Forces personnel are now allowed them, especially when snooping around in the wilds and attempting to blend in with indigenous personnel. But these sartorial heresies generally make the higher military powers hyperventilate, and so were (and are) of limited duration.

There is one hair rule for female personnel of all services which is “Above the collar!!!!” which in practice means their hair is either short enough that it does not touch the collar of any uniform combination, or wrangled into some sort of neat bun. Cpl. Blondie informs me that in the case of female Marines, the rubber bands and hairpins necessary to perform this function must be in all cases completely invisible. Army and Air Force women just need to use those implements which match their hair color.

4. Curiously enough, Army and Air Force personnel may be differentiated from Marines at some distance, when all are clad in BDU (forest or desert) if it is a hot day, and everyone has rolled up their sleeves. Marines will roll them straight up, with the paler wrong-side of the sleeve fabric showing. Army and Air Force personnel must perform an intricate sort of origami-folding to the sleeves which leaves nothing of the wrong side of the fabric showing.

My direct personal knowledge of these matters is some years out of date, so if any of the other members of the collective (or our readers) have corrections, or further tips or recommendations, feel free to chime in.

Wishing you the best in field-spotting the Services— Remember, it’s written right on the front of their cammies!!!

Sgt Mom

Comments closed.