Branch rivalry abounds in the U.S. military, but at the heart, each member of the service is united by a common mission — to protect and preserve freedom.
“Everyone knows the services have rivals, but it’s like a sibling rivalry. The reality is that when we deploy or do humanitarian missions, we do them together,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Stephanie Franco, recruiting flight chief in Salina. “We are a whole. We all have the same commander in chief. Though we have different jobs, we’re part of one unit.”
On May 20, all five branches of the U.S. military are celebrated on Armed Forces Day, and members of the military are thanked for their patriotic service. The single-day celebration stems from the unification of the Armed Forces under the Department of Defense in May 1950. It was intended to replace the separate U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force Days, but the separate days are still observed, especially within the respective services.
McPherson County is home to veterans and service members of all five branches. Their service spans over the past 70 years, and they have seen and will voice a number of changes over the years emerge.
Though camouflage is synonymous with the military, not all camouflage is alike.
“In the Marine Corps cammies, there are eagle, globe and anchor emblems within the pattern. You have to look for them, but they’re there,” explained Seith Snow, who served nine years with the Marines and was most recently a platoon sergeant.
For the Air Force, the small difference between camouflage patterns are what sets them apart.
“We had a battle dress uniform that had a larger camouflage pattern that looks like what you see people wearing around as fashion,” Franco explained. “Since 2011, we have the airman battle uniform which is a tiger stripe pattern that looks similar to the Army’s pattern, but theirs is pixelated.”
Each set of uniforms for each branch is designed with that group’s tasks in mind. It makes sense that a Navy uniform would double as a flotation device.
“The reason why the Navy has bell bottom trousers is because if ship went down, you could slip them off without taking off your boots. Once you take them off, you tie a knot in the cuff, wet them and wave them over your head to inflate them as a life preserver. Once they dried out, you just repeat the process and stay afloat,” said Dan Hervey, a Navy veteran. “Navy uniforms are folded inside out so when you wear them, they have inverted creases. That type of uniform stored very easily since we didn’t have a lot of room in our lockers. They tried to have an officers-style uniform for everyone for a while but they phased that out when they found that we really didn’t have the space for them.”
However, the U.S. Navy’s digital blue working uniforms have been ridiculed through their six years of use, simply because they’re not flame-resistant and they’re only useful for camouflaging sailors who’ve fallen overboard.
The Navy Times reports that the branch plans to use green and tan uniforms for ashore wear and flame-resistant coveralls and flight suits for at-sea wear.
In the Air Force, the airman battle uniform contains another surprising quirk that might come in handy.
“On our ABUs, there’s a button underneath the collar on the side,” explained Staff Sgt. Aaron Darden, recruiter in Salina. “If you needed to create a sling, you use the button at the top there.”
Of course, uniform regulations changed greatly when branches began recruiting more women decades ago.
“When I first went in in 1972, we were not allowed to wear slacks on post,” explained Judy Casey, who served in the Army during the post-Vietnam War era for 20 years. “There were a lot of new issues right then with a lot of women coming in that they’d never had to deal with. So we couldn’t wear slacks at first, but a few years later they gave us uniforms with slacks. There were rules about hair, no earrings, just a lot of issues they’d never had to deal with.”
Casey was part of the Army’s post-Vietnam War push to increase numbers, the Women’s Army Corps.
“When they were building up the women’s program, I got to come in on a special program that allowed me to come in as a first lieutenant instead of a second lieutenant,” Casey said. “I enjoyed my 20 years, I got to travel, and I got to be with the best people. The only regret is that I couldn’t be close to my family.”
Today, women are not rare faces in the military, but a handful of units are still all-male because no women have passed the grueling training required to qualify.
The U.S. Department of Defense lifted all gender-based restrictions in 2016, so the number of women in traditionally male units will increase as they complete lengthy training programs.
“In the Air Force, there’s a one- to two-year pipeline for para-rescue, so you won’t see increases in women there now, but you will,” Franco said. “We don’t have female recruiting quotas, but we have the highest percentage of women among the other branches.”
The Popeye stereotype of a tattooed military man is no longer accurate, thanks to changes in each branch’s tattoo policy.
“You used to be allowed to have anything, but now you can’t have more than 25 percent of an exposed body part. We were grid-mapping people’s appendages,” Franco laughed. “Now you can be fully tattooed, just nothing above the collarbone and nothing on the hands other than a wedding band tattoo. You could have a good 85 percent of your body covered.”
The trouble with tough restrictions is that recruits can be turned away for something that doesn’t affect their physical ability to serve in the military.
“It was traditional for the military to have tattoos, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that tattoos were associated with being unprofessional,” Franco said. “Now they’ve swung back the other way and realized that if they don’t loosen the standards, then no one will be able to join, and the Air Force is in the middle of its highest recruiting mission right now.”
Years ago, tattoos were fine if they didn’t cause any additional problems.
“Tattoos were acceptable, but if they got infected, you could get court marshaled because it would cost you time off the job, whereas today, you can get them, but only if they meet the requirements,” said Al Engel, a Navy veteran. “Most sailors would get them while they were on shore for a bit.”
Engel was no exception.
“I recall coming back to base at Honolulu and it was New Years Eve. I had $3 in my pocket and I was walking by a tattoo parlor, so I walked in and asked if they could do any tattoos for $3,” Engel laughed. “Sure thing, he tattooed a skunk on my forearm for $3.
For many, the military serves as a starting point for a number of civilian careers.
Willie Johnson, a Coast Guard veteran, chose the branch because of its length of time commitment. Johnson quickly learned that not all military jobs are combative.
“I got my draft notice, so I had 30 days to either go into the Army or choose another branch of the service. The coast guard was for three years while the others were four, so the biggest reason why I picked it was because I have this lovely lady sitting with me who was able to spend all my service days at my side,” Johnson said, gesturing to his wife of 65 years, Evie.
Johnson spent his time in the Coast Guard as an electrician, but he primarily served as the branch’s star basketball player from 1951 to 1954.
“I was stationed in St. Louis. We spent half our time going up and down the Mississippi River doing navigation, then I signed up for electrician school for four months, but mostly I played basketball,” Johnson said. “We had a base team and we played the other branches of the service. Then I got picked up by the Navy at the end of the season and played with them for three weeks.”
Aside from gaining skills built in specific military jobs, service members also benefit from continuing education opportunities outside the GI Bills.
“The Air Force has the largest community college in the nation, which is the Community College of the Air Force. If you wanted to do fire science, we would automatically enroll you and you’d be getting college credit. In this region, a lot of people are interested in avionics, and that credit has a direct correlation to the civilian sector,” Franco said. “Almost all of our entry-level jobs have civilian training and there’s over 140 different jobs. It’s like a small city.”
Despite the rivalries and differences between branches, service members find common ground in shared missions.
Carl Kasey, a Navy veteran, explained that this common ground is key for building camaraderie in day-to-day activities.
“My work in Hawaii was in the amphibious forces, and our landing craft would take Army personnel out to sea and bring them back full speed so they could learn how to get out of the landing crafts and run up the beach,” Kasey said. “I had four or five good buddies in the Army and we all lived in the same square tent together. If you’re working that close together, you better get along.”
These partnerships highlight the unity celebrated on Armed Forces Day, where the public thanks members of the military for their service.
“We do 24/7 what other people don’t want to do. It’s not a typical 9-to-5 job; you’ll work 24/7 as need be,” Snow said. “We’re there to do a job, and I think all branches do it well.”
Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.