By JIM PURCELL
Like a lot of soldiers from the 1990s and before, part of our everyday lives in uniform included polishing boots and pressing uniforms, even when it was applied to fatigues. Today, that isn’t a part of a soldier’s requirements. Soldiers do not press uniforms or polish boots.
|There is no replacement for looking squared away.|
Certainly, many civilians will think that caring for boots and uniforms is superfluous to the important mission the Army performs. However, I would disagree with this.
When conditions permit it, pressed uniforms and shined boots reflect not only professionalism but also the personal motivation of individual soldiers. I saw a soldier yesterday at the Veterans Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. He was a seasoned soldier, who held the rank of sergeant first class. On his left shoulder was the unit patch for the North Carolina Army National Guard, and on his right shoulder he displayed his 1st Infantry Division combat patch.
This soldier had put in a lot of effort and work to become a senior non-commissioned officer. He has served his nation in times of war and peace. But, did he look the best he could? No, not by a long shot. But, it’s not his fault, that is how the Army goes these days.
Why is that even important?
|Shined Corcoran Jump Boots|
Well, when I see a police officer who has spent time on his uniform and boots or shoes, it tells me something about the character of the police officer. If a police officer takes his position seriously, then his shoes will be polished, his uniform will be pressed and he will be wearing his pistol belt correctly. Immediately, in one glace, I know that I am speaking to someone who is invested in his role as a police officer. And, it matters. Every reaction and interaction that happens with that police officer’s contact with me is colored by that initial impression.
When I was a soldier in the 1980s and ‘90s, soldiers competed with one another to gain rank. One small part of that competition included how soldiers looked, on a day-to-day basis. How does a soldier represent themselves, their unit and the Army? What impression is being left?
While I was a soldier stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany, between 1986-1988 with the 2nd Armored Division (Forward), our uniform standards were high. It just so happened that when my wife and I, as well as a few friends, traveled to West Berlin, we had to travel through then-East Germany to get there. Along the course of the trip, as happened regularly, the train was stopped by the Soviet military to check the identities of everyone who was on board. It was late, about 1 a.m. when the train stopped. It was a sleeper cabin, so my wife woke me up in expectation of showing my ID and papers to the soldiers climbing aboard the train.
|Are these soldiers as sharp as they can be? Maybe not.|
My wife and I could hear the soldiers going from cabin to cabin until they showed up outside our door. There stood a Soviet officer and two soldiers. And, they looked amazing. Their boots were highly shined, their uniforms were pressed perfectly and there was not a ribbon out of place. Meanwhile, the officer’s leather pistol belt was shined and the soldiers’ AK-47s positively gleamed. Do not forget, this duty of theirs was happening in the middle of the night, yet still these soldiers took the extra time to make sure they represented their unit, their Army and even their country in a professional manner.
I was so impressed by the way these guys looked, I said automatically, “You guys look sharp.” Neither the officer or the soldiers acknowledged the compliment as they checked our paperwork.
So, what did I take away from that meeting? Alright, these border guards took their job very seriously. Not only was their manner efficient and crisp, but they looked like professional soldiers. It was evident that their equipment was good to go and that they had put the work in on maintenance. Their appearance told me the Russian soldier cared about his job and his service, and it earned a level of respect.
A regular part of every soldier’s life is maintaining their vehicles, communications equipment, weapons systems and personal weapons. This much has not changed. This is done so that the Army can shoot, move and communicate. If an army cannot do any one of the three then it is not much of an army. While such maintenance is routine, it is also a testament to individual soldiers’ abilities to focus and pay attention to detail. How a soldier looks in garrison, or where it is practical, makes a potent statement about who that soldier is underneath the uniform.
|These collars are pressed and starched|
I say ‘where it is practical’ because there are circumstances where care of a uniform and boots just doesn’t work out well. When a soldier is in the field, uniforms are going to get grungy, boots will be in mud and water or whatever. So, it is understandable that a standard for a soldier in garrison would not be applied to them.
Yet, a soldier in garrison has no business whatsoever appearing no better than a soldier working in the field. It is counter-intuitive that wrinkled uniforms and dull, dirty boots be the standard in the U.S. Army.
I spoke to a soldier who was in the Army recently, and he said that he was glad the Army didn’t go for “spit and polish” anymore. When it comes down to it, though, isn’t caring for one’s boots and uniform a mark of professionalism?
I don’t care what the Army changes its uniforms too. I do not care what the latest military fashion is. All I am saying is that it would be a better reflection of the Army, and all the uniformed services too, if uniforms could be pressed (shall I go so far to say starched?) and boots be shined. Being a soldier is serious business and looking right is just one aspect of military professionalism.