In the desert, soldiers give their BDU caps an individual flair
Stars and Stripes June 11, 2003
Click here for a graphic showing some of the ways servicemembers wear their boonie caps.
When they come to the desert, GIs stow away the smart-looking billed BDU caps for floppy desert ones that protect the neck from the sun but look painfully silly.
Soldiers will go to great lengths to give their toppers a bit of an individual flair, something that looks a bit more dignified than the regulation porkpie style — with brim flipped low and loose, chin strap behind the head or under the chin.
Spc. Kristian Gagnier, 21, of the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment’s Alpha Troop, pushes his cap down in front and back to make it look like an old-fashioned cavalryman’s hat.
“It looks better than the flower-pot look,” said Gagnier, of Valparaiso, Ind., “messed up all the way around.”
But looks don’t impress many command sergeants major, whose job includes enforcing uniform standards.
“It ain’t a fedora, it ain’t a field Stetson and it ain’t a cowboy hat,” said Command Sgt. Major Patrick Laidlaw of the 11th Aviation Regiment. “The idea is to keep (the brim) flipped down, to keep the sun off your ears. There’s nobody here to impress. We’re out here all alone.”
Cap molding mostly is an enterprise of officers and warrant officers, since sergeant majors tend to frown deeply on this sort of innovation. The officer corps is in a better position to take the heat.
“It’s to display a little field spirit,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mike Wade, safety officer for the 2nd Squadron, 6th Aviation Regiment. “Our troops started doing it in Somalia.”
Wade’s is molded to look like a field Stetson, low in front and lower behind, with a jaunty curve over the ears. He never washes his hat but rubs liquid soap in it. When the soap dries, the hat is as stiff as if it had been starched.
Wade’s hat style has led to clashes with one of his tentmates, 1st Sgt. Homer Yates, 46, of Portsmouth, Ohio. Yates has been the 2-6 Cav’s command sergeant major since December, and few things get him as riled as nonstandard boonie caps.
“Everything the Army does has standards,” Yates says. “The soldiers need to know these standards. It defines a well-disciplined unit.”
Yates said he corrects soldiers and officers for cap violations “every day.”
“It’s very obvious, because it’s out there for everyone to see,” he said. “As you walk around, you’ll notice a lot of people aren’t being correct.”
The list of those who bend the rule a little includes some high-ranking folks. The commanders of the 6-6 Cavalry and the 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, Lt. Col. Mike Barbee and Lt. Col. Pete Franks both wear their caps turned up slightly all the way around, but more so on the sides.
It’s called the Panama Jack.
“I rolled it up in my pocket, and it stayed that way,” Franks protested, trying unsuccessfully to turn the brim down.
The “rolled-up-in-my pocket” explanation crops up suspiciously often, and it allegedly accounts for many different styles. Capt. Mark Levine, a chaplain from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment out of Fort Stewart, Ga., sports a cap that hangs low in both front and back. It looks good, and it gives both face and neck extra protection. The chaplain said it happened naturally, when he rolled it up and put it in his pocket.
The cap of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kathy Jarrell, 38, who flies in the 1-3 Aviation — and who is the Army’s first female Apache pilot — is turned up in back and front in a style fondly called the “Jarrell scrunch.”
It, too, resulted from rolling her cap up in her pocket, but the opposite way from Levine.
Maj. Scot Bemis, the 11th Aviation Regiment’s S-1 (personnel) officer, favors the “Aussie” style, which is like the cowboy, but with only one side turned up. He swears this started out as an accident, not vanity.
“Once it just flipped up like that,” he said. “The sergeant major kept flipping it down, but it wouldn’t stay.”
Then again, sometimes comfort trumps dignity.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Leonard Eichhorn, 42, a 2-6 Cavalry Apache pilot, wears an ancient hat whose brim has long since lost any trace of starch. It hangs down all around his head.
He calls it the “Gilligan.”