23 June 2011

Dressed Not to Kill, Part II

"Bring two laundry bags for laundry exchange," Archer advises me via e-mail, before I leave for Afghanistan. "Dennis Hopper crazy photographer clothing works. You can buy stuff here. About a 72-hour turn around on laundry."

I appreciate the "Apocalypse Now" (1979) reference and enthusiasm. Apparently, Taliban don't surf, either.

Developing my personal packing list, I plan for approximately three changes of clothes, figuring that should last from 6 to 9 days. I'll be doing laundry by hand in a borrowed 5-gallon bucket. No lost clothes that way. And no damaged fabrics--my war-togs are delicates. Best of all? Same-day service.

I start my with three UltraViolet-blocking, quick-drying, breathable, long-sleeved shirts. A mix of ExOfficio and REI brands, in slate blues and olive greens. I figure that changing my colors every so often will offer the illusion that I'm changing my clothes.

I wear my shirts untucked, partly to conceal that I'll be wearing uniform trousers, complete with military "rigger's belt." I opt for tan-colored pants, because rules for embedded media explicitly state "no camouflage." Otherwise, they're identical to those issued to U.S. troops.

While I had previously purchased matching "blouses"--the long-sleeved uniform shirt worn over a T-shirt--I ultimately decided to leave these at home. Wearing a matchy-matchy tan uniform seemed to be against the rules for embedded media: "Clothing and equipment will be subdued in color and appearance, but non-military in appearance."

Besides, I've seen other downrange types of U.S. civilians--Army Corps of Engineers employees, mostly--adopt the all-khaki look. I'm not entirely sure it's respectable, or respected by the troops.

Wearing G.I.-style pants means I have drawstrings, which allow for easier tucking of the trouser into the tops of combat boots. I soon confirm what U.S. troops in Afghanistan already know, however: Ankle-height footgear, such as the military's Mountain Combat Boot (M.C.B.), isn't tall enough to allow for proper tucking. I use large safety pins to control the drawstrings, and let the pants hang straight, over my well-worn civilian hiking boots. I see a lot of this look in Afghanistan when I get there.

The pants, of course, are all about the pockets. Two big cargo pockets on the hips, and two smaller ones on the calves. Unfortunately, the pockets close with hook-and-loop fasteners--Velcro--rather than buttons. According to recent news reports, newer uniforms will soon feature more buttons than Velcro. Velcro is loud, and sticks to stuff, and wears out too easily. Of course, unlike the sticky stuff on my old Army Combat Uniforms, I only need these patches to last a few weeks.

Here's what I pack in my pockets:
  • Right cargo pocket: Cargo-pocket organizer, black, one each. Contains ear plugs; metal-body ballpoint pens in black, red, and blue inks; waterproof notebook; red-colored L.E.D. light.
  • Right calf: Travel-size alcohol-based hand-cleanser.
  • Left cargo: Fire-proof aviator gloves. Travel pack of anti-bacterial baby wipes.
  • Left calf: Clif bars, available as snack items at fashionable Dining Facilities (D.F.A.C., pronounced "dee-fak") everywhere. My favorite in country: "Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch." My all-time favorite, which I take pains never to admit in a combat zone? "White Chocolate Macadamia Nut." While delicious, it just isn't manly.
For headgear, I toy with the idea of wearing a floppy "Stetson" similar to the one I'd been issued for a multinational peacekeeping mission in Egypt. These hats have a broader brim than the military "sun hats," which are still more commonly called "boonie" hats. While the so-called Stetsons we'd been issued in Egypt were burnt-orange colored, I'd also purchased a civilianized one that was hunter green. I figured the long, beefy chin-strap and built-in neck protector might come in handy, particularly if I wanted to geek out in front of the troops. Plus, it has a "peace dove" patch affixed to the hat. Can't get much more non-combatant than that, can you? Sort of like Private Joker in "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), putting a peace symbol on his body armor?

Not wanting to separate myself from the Red Bull herd too much, however, I instead choose a generic olive-drab ball cap, Velcro-ready for patches and name tapes. During the course of my travels, I exercise great restraint in attaching funny stuff to my headgear. Patches such as "Infidel Media" or "Pork: The Other White Meat."

I buy a small S-shaped carabiner. I attach this to a belt loop, and use it to hang my hat when I'm at the DFAC and other indoor locations. It also serves to dummy-cord my point-and-shoot camera, so it doesn't drop out of my front right pants pocket.

In addition to designing my own "uniform," I have to worry about Personal Protective Equipment (P.P.E.). This includes:
  • Kevlar vest with plates. Similar in style to the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (I.O.T.V.) currently worn by U.S. troops, my non-military vest plus "Small Arms Protective Inserts" ("SAPI," pronounced "sappy") weighs about 35 pounds. Without the SAPI, the vest can theoretically stop 9mm rounds from a pistol. With the plates inserted, the vest can theoretically stop up to 7.62mm rounds from an AK-47 or medium machine gun. I have no plans to test either theory. I skip the groin protector, for no particularly good reason. Insert your choice of groin-protector joke here. For example: Perhaps I couldn't find one in a size large enough?
  • Eye-protection: Rather than spend the budget on prescription ballistic glasses, I opt for $70 goggles that are rated to the required A.N.S.I. Z87 safety standard. I wear these over my prescription sports glasses, which are rated more for shuffleboard safety than for shotgun blasts. They are also photochromic, so I use them as sunglasses. Later, however, I find my ballistic goggles are also UV-blocking, so my lenses don't darken when I have the goggles on.
  • Ear-protection: Standard Army-issue triple-flange ear plugs. Useful for aircraft, and for snoring bunkmates.
  • Hands: Flame-retardant aviator-style Nomex gloves.
Prior to leaving for Afghanistan, I paint my nickname and blood type on back of my Kevlar helmet. (In keeping with the no-camo rule, most non-combatants do not place cloth covers on their helmets.) On the helmet's front edge, I paint the word "Press," rather than "Media." I figure that I've been a dinosaur print journalist for more than two decades, yet have never put the word "Press" on any hat. Might as well play the stereotype. Inside the helmet, I write my real name, my blood type, and the last four of my Social Security Number.

My body armor is "Coyote Brown" in color, which turns out to be hard to match when purchasing accessories. You can customize your vest by attaching items via a standardized system of straps and snaps called "Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment"--"MOLLE," pronounced like the female name.

Turns out, however, tactical-gear manufacturers don't offer every type of pouch in every color or camo-pattern. For example, I had wanted to purchase an "IFAK"--an "Improved First Aid Kit," filled with such life-saving goodies as tourniquets and blood-coagulating trauma bandages. There are two problems, however. First, I can find it only in Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.), which violates the no-camo rule. Second, it also contains needles and blades, and non-combatants such as media aren't allowed to carry sharp objects. We aren't supposed to run with scissors, even in a war zone. Even if we're running away.

I end up with a patchwork of items on my vest: a sage-green camera case, and a brown medic-style pouch that proves too small for anything but a few Band-Aids and some aspirin. I promise myself that I will be near a medic or Combat Lifesaver (C.L.S.)-trained soldier at all times. Heck, I'll carry one around on my back, if I have to.

Despite all my packing and planning, I realize too late that my free-breathing outdoorsy shirts are probably all made from petroleum products. They're not exactly fire-retardant. If I were to be in a vehicle hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.), I would probably melt into a flaming puddle of well-ventilated, non-groin-protected comfort.

I do not tell my wife about any of this.


  1. I am picturing HH6 now reading this and going !!??!!

    But at least you didn't grow a mustache (or go all Colonel Kurtz) - Win!


  2. "I would probably melt into a flaming puddle of well-ventilated, non-groin-protected comfort.

    I do not tell my wife about any of this."

    I don't know, but for some reason, as I read that tonight, I was thinking that it might be one of the best bits that you've written... from where I sit anyways. It cracked me up.


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