Monday, August 10, 2009

The "Combat Patch" as Bar Mitzpha

Or Bas Mitzpha, depending on your gender...

Many years ago (at the end of WWII, I believe) the Army adopted the practice of allowing soldiers who had served in a combat zone to wear the unit patch of their outfit on their right shoulder. The current unit of assignment's patch is worn on the left shoulder. This was a not-so-subtle way of identifying who'd been to war, and who had yet to "become a man". Soldiers referred to this additional insignia as a "Combat Patch", which sounds way more macho that its official Army name: FWSSSI, or "Former Wartime Service Shoulder Sleeve Insignia". A soldier could be highly competent, motivated, and courageous, but without a combat patch, he was just another rookie who hadn't played in a real game yet. After the Vietnam War concluded, there was an entire generation of soldiers who had that slick right sleeve. In the mid-70's to early 80's, almost all of the senior NCOs and officers wore combat patches, which made the rest of us stand out, and not in a good way. Yet for the most part, those who had earned the right to wear a combat patch didn't make a big deal about it, they just had quietly sewn it on their uniforms when they returned home and that was that.
A few soldiers, mostly special ops types, earned combat patches in Panama. Later, more soldiers sported combat patches from the First Gulf War, but still not too many. Then everything changed...After 6 straight years of combat deployments, it's increasingly rare to see soldiers without a combat patch. In fact, the absence of that little piece of fabric and velcro on the right shoulder of an active duty soldier has sometimes sparked quiet, unkind comments from those who have deployed. many with three or more tours under their belts.
So I guess it's only natural for Army units over here to make a big deal about the "combat patch ceremony." It has become quite the event, complete with a quasi-standardized script, read with the requisite gravitas, which tells the no-longer slick sleeved warriors, "Today, you are a man!"

Our team elected to informally slap 'em on just as two of us were ready to board a helicopter, and took a couple of snapshots for posterity...We were all much more comfortable with our approach, and somehow I felt it more appropriate to emulate the same matter-of-fact, low-key manner which previous generations had adopted.
So now I sport an insignia which tells other soldiers that I've gone off to war...and that I guess somehow entitles me to look down my nose at those without it...but I'm not gonna do that, because there are too many soldiers who actually fought, bled, and sometimes died earning that same combat patch...(And those men and women are truly entitled to look down their noses at the rest of us!)

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