27 October 2010

Chatting Up the Patch

This post was written earlier in September:

It was only after three people at the airport asked me whether I was "coming or going" that I realized what was going on. People just wanted to whether I was traveling in the direction of home or Afghanistan.

In an attempt to avoid too many questions about why I had body armor in my personal luggage, I was traveling in uniform. Tropical storms and tornadoes had socked Dallas/Fort Worth in the eye, and I was transferred between airlines. I believe the industry term is "walking the ticket," but from where I was, it looked a whole lot more like a full-on sprint.

Given that my ultimate destination was Camp Shelby, Miss., I decided my canned response to "coming or going" should be: "Going. But only halfway." I also reveled in the potential double-meaning, given this summer's news that I was off the deployment bus.

I can think pretty fast, you see, but that's only if I've thought ahead. Start pushing me toward a plane that isn't headed where I think I should be headed, and this particular Red Bull becomes a balky calf. As the aircraft door hit me in the backside, and I searched out the seat the gate agent swore was waiting for me, I'm sure I looked to my fellow passengers like the proverbial cow in the headlights.

Civilians in the Camp Shelby area now recognize the Red Bull patch we wear on our left shoulders, and will chat soldiers up about life back in Iowa. I've also had Red Bull veterans and families introduce themselves in airport coffee shops and gate areas.

It gets a little more problematic when people comment on the right-shoulder patch. Generally, a soldier who has deployed to a "combat zone" can wear the patch of the unit with which he or she "went to war." Even if the soldier transfers units, the right-shoulder patch will stay the same.

So, quick lesson-learned for making airport small-talk here: Look for the patch, ask about it, and you'll find a friend. Most soldiers take pride in their units, and where they've been deployed.

My own "combat patch"--I'm getting a little cheeky here, for reasons I'm about to tell you--is a little more problematic, conversationally. First, I was awarded the badge for a peacekeeping mission. You know how "military intelligence" is a contradiction in terms? Try wearing "a combat patch for peacekeeping duty."

(There's a related line from Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," about wearing a peace symbol on one's helmet: "I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man [...] The Jungian thing, sir.")

Second, I wear the patch of the XVIII Airborne Corps. Jokingly referred to as the "Gagging Dragon," it features the profile of a ferocious-looking, spear-spewing lizard. A separate "Airborne" tab tops the patch.

If I wore the same tab on my left shoulder, it would signal that I was in a unit that jumps out of perfectly good aircraft. If I wore a parachutist's badge over my "U.S. Army," it would indicate that I'd individually been trained to do just that, and, in the process, lived at least three times to tell the story.

At the airport, people sometimes see the "Airborne" tab on my right-shoulder and ask me about jumping out of perfectly good aircraft. I hope that I don't disappoint them--I'm not "Airborne," and I'm certainly not an "Airborne Ranger." (A "Ranger" tab is a Whole 'Nother Animal.") I'm a soldier, not a "death from above" paratrooper.

Recently, a buddy told me what the active-duty soldiers call someone who isn't Airborne-qualified, but still wears an Airborne tab as part of a unit or combat patch:

"You're a 'penguin,'" he informed me. "You're a flightless bird!"


  1. lol.. some of us find Penguins very exciting (Kaboom!)


  2. Just curious so how were you able to wear a patch for a peace keeping mission when combat patches aren't allowed for peacekeeping? what was the qualification? Or what regulation?

  3. I was told because that's a peace keeping mission in the Sinai we wouldn't wear a combat patch or a right shoulder patch. Just wondering was there something that happened for you guys to rate that patch? Did you take contact? basically how did you earn the patch? This peacekeeping thing is new to me. Or was it just a end of tour award and they decided to give it to you?

    1. Here's my reply to a similar question I just posted elsewhere on the Red Bull Rising blog:

      Like the Vegas commercial says: "'Crazy Stuff' in the Sinai ... stays in the Sinai."

      Seriously, however, the region started heating up only after our rotation. The Taba Hilton was bombed in 2004. Bomb in Sharm el-Sheikh was 2005. There was a small arms attack on North Camp in 2012, reportedly involving "dozens of Bedouin."

      The patch figuratively showed up in our personnel files a few years after we'd returned home. A rotation subsequent to ours had requested it and gotten it approved, and it was retroactive. Our headquarters researched it, bought off on it, and posted it to our individual files.

      Keep in mind, a few years later, most of these Red Bull soldiers had other patches from which to choose, including their own division's. But in the early 2000s, when even civilians began to think "slick-sleeve" meant you hadn't deployed, the dragon patches were a welcome arrival.


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