December 23, 2009
Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 12/23/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Remember back in high school, when the cool kids had the designer threads and the poor kids wore cheap clothing? The newest, flashiest brand name stuff was a badge of social prowess, and the more you had, the easier it was to climb up the ranks into the realm of popularity.
Not much has changed since then, and judging by what I see today in the Army, this game of sporting the newest, coolest gear has continued with a full head of steam. We as soldiers are still contestants in the hunt for the new fashionable item. In Army lingo, the guys who personify this pursuit of new stuff are known as “Geardos” (a fusion of the words Gear and Weirdos). In my unit, I jokingly called the Geardos' endless pursuit of new stuff The Arms Race, and the term stuck as a running joke, especially with the undisputed leader in the race: the Greek.
The Arms Race started the first day we arrived at our mobilization training, and it didn’t stop until we all came home a year later. The first shots in the Geardo war were fired when UPS boxes addressed to the Greek arrived in the first week of training. The boxes were still arriving months later when we were living in remote and distant FOBs in the mountains of Afghanistan. These bundles of Geardo joy delivered the newest military items to the Greek, as well as to other competing unit members, who were constantly fighting to be the leader in the Arms Race.
Given the proliferation of small designer companies pumping out new and improved tactical gear, Uncle Sam just couldn’t keep up with the evolution of gadgetry. Woe is the soldier who had only the items he was issued by the Army. It was tantamount to the poor kids wearing the Kmart sneakers and Rescue Mission hand me downs, while the cool kids (i.e. the Geardos) sported Air Jordans and Hollister.
The levels one took to be the best Geardo were intense. Money was no issue. To be at the vanguard of new gear was worth every penny, and the Greek had a big financial advantage in funding his arsenal. His wife had recently won a sizeable chunk of money in the lottery, so he had more slack and could spend more on tactical accessories. Most wives held the financial reins pretty tight, as they had assumed control of the family budget once their husbands left for mobilization training and deployment.
The Arms Race was a predictable and regular process. One guy, usually the Greek, would order a new accessory, and the ritual of its arrival and introduction to the unit was a celebrated event. He would open the box to a crowd of anxious onlookers. We would stand around and ogle the new item, jealously wishing we had found it first. Soon packages would arrive bearing the same item for other soldiers: Bipods. Tripods. Slings. Chest Rigs. Optical sights. Magpuls. Mini flashlights and mega rucksacks. The list of privately purchased gear went on and on. And once an item became too popular and common among the unit, it no longer had the pizzazz, and a new one had to be acquired to maintain the desired level of tactical street cred and, more importantly, leadership in the Arms Race.
For example, the Greek was the first to buy a high-speed bi-pod for his M-4 rifle. We weren’t issued any bi-pods by Uncle Sam, so this was an arms race coup on his part. Soon many soldiers in the unit had purchased the same thing. Now that the bi-pod had lost its uniqueness and was common among the troops, the Greek decided to up the ante. He declared that the color of the bi-pod was not tactically correct enough, and purchased a can of sand-colored spray paint to correct this flaw. Before long, the barracks were a toxic chamber of fumes, as soldiers were busy spray painting their gear in variations of sand and brown and green.
It was a whole new battlefield that the Greek had introduced in the gear Arms Race. Color was now earning points for style. Green was frowned upon -- it was so 1980s. Everyone knew Afghanistan had nothing green. Brown was an okay color selection, as it was generally agreed that it could blend into many landscapes, but sand was the undisputed best choice given the desert-like terrain we expected to be operating in. But it better be flat spray paint. Those who bought gloss spray paint lost points on their customization projects. Even the most inexperienced private knew that shiny accessories would only attract the eye of the enemy on the field of battle.
In the heat of this absurdity of the gear Arms Race, I began to develop fake products in order to show my buddies how silly the tit-for-tat purchases were becoming. The fact was everything we were issued by Uncle Sam was better than anything our enemy would have, and it all had been rigorously field tested before being issued to us. So my intent in creating a fictional uber-tactical gear catalog was, through comedy, to show people the folly of the hunt for the perfect designer product.
Using my slightly-above-average art skills, I put together two fake catalogs, one originating from the Greek’s fictional company, the other from that of his main rival in the Arms Race, a guy called Spanky. The catalogs became daily reading for my unit as they sat through three-hour-long training classes in 100-plus-degree Deep South heat. Every couple days I would introduce new products and they would be passed around during the classes and keep people entertained.
The catalogs included such items as a tactical spittoon that was worn like a camelback canteen, a field manual on jerking off in a combat environment, Day Vision Goggles, and my favorite, the R.A.N.G.E.R., which was spawned by a guy in our unit, nicknamed Ranger, who had a proclivity for either losing gear or misplacing it. R.A.N.G.E.R stood for “Rugged, Any purpose, Nug approved , Gear & Equipment Retainers." The product was a ten cent piece of 550 cord (rope) that you would tie onto your item, and then tie the other end to your belt. I had turned the classic Army “dummy cord” into a high-priced essential piece of tactical gear available for the low cost of $99.99. It was fortunate for my unit members' bank accounts that these items were all fictional, because I’m sure someone would have wasted their money on a couple of them in the endless pursuit of the newest high-end designer gear.
Perhaps the best real world example of the folly of the gear Arms Race was the hunt for the perfect holster. Uncle Sam issued us a thigh rig that allowed for the low-hung placement of our M-9 Beretta pistol on our leg just above the knee. The cool kids, led by the Greek and his arch rival Spanky, decided that this was a horrible design concept, and many a thigh rig was replaced with a private purchase holster that placed the weapon further up the leg and nearer to the waist. I remember a third participant in the arms race spending hours debating which holster he should purchase. He treated it like a major purchase, like a house or a new car. It was serious business with life or death consequences in his mind, and he eventually settled for an expensive holster that set off a pursuit among others for an even better holster. Like the rising hemlines on women’s skirts, the fashion worthiness of holsters began to be measured by how high up they rode on the wearer. Within weeks, pistols were practically invisible under the body armor we wore. A thigh rig was so passé. Wearing anything low was considered tantamount to tactical and fashion suicide.
Yet when all was said and done, after our year-long tour at war was over, not one of us ever fired our M-9 pistol in anger. The arms race for the perfect high-speed gunslinger holster was all for naught.