October 22, 2009

Name: K
Posting date: 10/22/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

Framed K firebase unframed
  Korengal Valley as seen from Firebase Vimoto.

You know it's been an interesting tour when during an hour-long layover in Alaska someone just happens to buy a Time magazine and thereby stumble across pictures of members of our team and one of our interpreters. Of course, our guys that had the pictures taken knew that eventually they might show up in the magazine, but none of the rest of us knew they'd be in there since we didn't pay attention to the fact that a reporter was with them.

It might have been a nice surprise if not for the fact that two of our guys pictured were bearded and well out of uniform. Unlike the Special Forces, we're not permitted to dress and groom ourselves how we'd like.

Of course, where we could get away with it, many of us did just what we liked regarding our uniforms and beards. But generally we had sense enough to not let pictures get taken of us in such a state. In fact, for the first half of our time we didn't let reporters embed with us at all, and pretty much just kept them away from us, primarily so something like this wouldn't happen.

At some point that changed though, and members of our team thereafter appeared or were mentioned in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time (twice), El Mundo, and some others. It wasn't until this last one though that some of us were published completely out of uniform. I'm not sure what if any repercussions our team will feel, but at any rate, I think the main pic of the story makes a helluva recruiting tool for the Marine Corps. Badass!

As for the why -- why we'd be out of uniform and unshaven at times -- well, there's more to it than simply being nasty and undisciplined. For one thing, the Afghan elders and people respect a man with a beard. In fact when we and our ANA would go to a village the ANA commander would always ask to talk to the "spin gheri" which translates as "white beard". Now I'm not sure if the literal translation in Pashtu for "village elder" is "white beard" but that's how my Afghan commanders got their point across, pretty much indicating that in the Pashtu language and culture a beard is synonymous with seniority and authority.

We certainly never once spoke to a man of any stature whatsoever that had no beard. The elders I habitually dealt with were dismayed (nearly as much as I) when I shaved a two-month beard I had going. I'm not sure being clean-shaven was any real detriment at the end of the day, but adopting a local custom is not always a bad thing, despite what our pre-deployment training told us about "not going native". I say go native sometimes where it serves you. And frankly, growing a beard makes the Marines feel like they're getting one over on the rulewriters on high and is good for morale. You just have to be sure that you've got a group that is professional enough to realize that breaking one rule doesn't mean they are not still Marines, with all the other attendant rules and regulations to follow.

As for the uniforms, most of that had to do with blending in with the ANA. Even from 600 meters away an insurgent is probably going to recognize an American by the gear he's carrying, but there's no use making it any easier for them to target the ETTs specifically by wearing a uniform that looks different.


I can relate to the being away from home base. Our biggie in another "conflict" was to grow a handle bar mustache. Upon return we had to go back to the 1/8 inch above not to extend past the end. I'm guessing that hasn't changed in a few decades.

Good post and good info. Please keep it up. Speaking of something similar, you can get custom military dog tags with your text at

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