I recently went to Kabul International Airport for a two-week airpower survey. Kabul International, hosting a NATO base, has very little in the way of uniform rules. You cannot wear shorts to the dining hall, and you cannot wear the same shoes in the gym that you used to walk there. But that’s about it. After ten days of “Wild West” uniform rules, I chanced to stop at Bagram Airbase on the way out. There, I was finally “chiefed.” He did a very good job of it, simply saying, “Sir, the rolled-up sleeves are killing me.” Like many aviators, I push up the sleeves of my flight suit, and I have been doing it since before I got my wings. I am technically in the wrong, but every time I wash my hands, the sleeves go up, and they stay there. Plus, it is more comfortable. Still, the chief was right.
I have made a total of 16 trips into combat zones, 12 of them actual combat deployments. Throughout them all, uniform regulations have been the bane of my existence. This might seem like a strange thing for a military officer to say after more than a quarter century wearing uniforms, but it is true. For my trip to Afghanistan, I was issued one of the new camouflage, two-piece flight suits. Legacy flight suits are just big, one-piece pajamas that come in a color often referred to as “sage green,” as if associating it with a common household herb makes it more attractive. In 1990, my beloved Air Force ordered desert flight suits, which arrived in early 1999 just in time to go to war in Serbia in the spring. Now, we have a new design in the “operational camouflage pattern,” which is a combination of green, brown, browner brown, tan, and a color which looks suspiciously like a tan with a pinkish hue. But, my biggest problem isn’t the color or the style. It has too many pockets.
Yes, you read that right. A classic flight suit has eight pockets and two penholders. For fighter guys, who cut off the so-called “peeter pocket” because it is redundant, it is seven pockets. The new one has more pockets than I can handle. It has pockets. It has pockets on pockets. In fact, it has pockets in the pockets on the pockets. The whole ensemble has a whopping 17 pockets, not including nine penholders. My original estimate was 13, but once I laid out a uniform and actually counted them, it was clear that the designers had a serious pocket fetish.
Two penholders were great. I stuck a pencil in one and a pen in the other. With nine, I now have room for a pencil, an emergency backup pencil, a pen, an emergency backup pen, a laundry marker, three primary color crayons, and a sharpie, with space reserved for a stylus if Apple ever incorporates one into the iPhone. Although given the heat-retention properties of Nomex and the notorious interactions that crayons have with heat, crayons are probably a bad call.
There is also clearly a conspiracy of chief master sergeants and sergeants major in the uniform design. Four of the pen pockets are on the sleeves, which is obviously their diabolical plot to get me to roll my sleeves down. Or it would be if I didn’t have five non-sleeve penholders for the two that I actually need, including the three over my left tricep, where they actually belong.
No longer satisfied with zipper closures for pockets, the designers ensured we now have zippers and Velcro — the two noisiest fasteners known to man — just to make sure that the pockets are completely inaccessible and can strip some of the skin off of your hand when you reach in. Not that I could ever find what I put in my pockets, because I could never remember which pocket I put anything in. Giving myself a hurried pat-down looking for the keys to the Landcruiser became a regular event.
There is a first-of-its kind pocket, too — which I didn’t find until I took the uniform off and inspected it closely. Placed conveniently over the lower lobe of my left lung is an upside-down, Velcro-sealed pocket that reveals itself through a little slit in the uniform fabric. Not only was it difficult to find, but the only purpose I can think of is to dispense Skittles one-handed — M&Ms being subject to the same thermal stress effects as crayons. Needless to say, there were no instructions.
To add insult delivery, there is one other problem with the flight suit. For those airplanes with ejection seats, it is not actually authorized for — you guessed it — flight. Back to the drawing board…
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.