Some military traditions make sense to nearly everyone — little things that show mutual respect, like leaders serving food to their subordinates on holidays or NCOs electing to eat after their guys. Other traditions are odd at first blush, like messing with the new guy or passing through an archway after graduating a class or achieving a higher rank, but civilians can generally understand where they come from.
But then there are the ones that require a lot of explaining to your civilian family members. Every time, these story begins with a, “well, you see. It kinda goes back to…” and more often than not, the explanation just makes them tilt their head in confusion.
At one point, the following traditions may have meant something to one person or a group, but today, the original meaning is buried beneath decades of military bearing and tradition. We mostly just do them because, well, if it ain’t broke — and no one’s getting UCMJ’d for it — why bother stopping?
10. Paratroopers and cherry pies
When you finish going through Army Airborne School, your head will be spinning, filled with all of the information you’ll need to not shatter every bone in your body when you make a landing. You’ll have to master the art of hooking up your static line and perform countless parachute landing falls before you’re even able to get the chance to actually jump out of a perfectly good airplane.
Finally, the moment of truth arrives — you finally get to jump with your unit in the 82nd. Your superiors will recommend that you fill your cargo pockets with Hostess Cherry Pies first. They’ll often say it’s for some reason like, “in case you get hungry when you land” or whatever. Who are you to argue?
When your big moment finally comes and you take in the sights while falling gracefully, you’ll hopefully have your PLFs burnt into the back of your mind as second nature. Everything will happen so fast that you’ll forget those cherry pies in your pants. When you land, you’ll squish all those pies and leave a nice red stain on your uniform.
9. Actual callsigns
In pop culture, callsigns are the coolest things ever. You’ll often see some badass names, like Iceman, Maverick, or Snake used in TV and movies. They’re always just made up because they sound cool and the storytellers don’t really know how the military works.
In reality, callsigns are usually unit designations followed by a number to signify who they are in said unit. So, for example, the commander of the Alpha company “Black Sheep” would be known as “Black Sheep 6,” and the first sergeant of the same unit is “Black Sheep 7.”
If you’re looking for unique callsigns, those are in the aviation world, and they’re typically less cool and more nonsensical. For example, if you eat a Pop-Tart one time in front of another pilot, your callsign is now forever “Pop-Tart.” Good going, Pop-Tart. That’s your callsign until the end of time.
8. The grog bowl
At civilian parties, if there’s a punch bowl, it’ll be centrally placed and it may or may not have some kind of alcohol in it. Whenever the military throws a unit ball, that punch bowl will most certainly have alcohol in it… plus a whole slew of other random things that would make anyone throw up.
Most of the leadership of the unit gets a chance to add one ingredient to the grog bowl (which is a toilet bowl) and offer some kind of nonsense to explain why their chosen ingredient has some kind of significance to the unit.
You can expect classic grog bowl ingredients, like hot sauce, because of the deserts the unit deploys to, ground coffee, because of the long hours the troops works, a cup of salt, because of the sweat that troops give to the cause, and a dirty sock because… reasons?
7. Blood wings and blood stripes
When civilians get promoted or graduate some school, the accomplishment is usually met with a party or a card that’s signed by everyone in the office. That sounds pleasant. Troops, on the other hand, almost always lose a bit of blood over it.
Blood wings and blood stripes are, essentially, the same thing. You get the wings from a school and the stripes from a promotion. Then, everyone takes turn punching it in. It’s technically considered hazing, but the troop receiving the blood wings/stripes usually agrees to it. There (typically) isn’t any malice or hate involved in the ceremony and troops usually walk away with a bit more pride in whoever bled for their new badge/rank.
6. Challenge coin “duels”
There’s nothing really odd about challenge coins in general. It’s basically the same thing as collecting trading cards as a kid, but instead of aiming for a holographic Charizard, you’re aiming for the coolest-looking coin with the most badass backstory.
Usually, officers will keep the coolest coins on their desk in their office to casually gloat about and enlisted troops keep them in some drawer at home, but sh*t gets real when troops take their coins to the bars. The ensuing game basically goes like this:
Troops unsheathe their coolest coin. If you don’t have your coin on you, you buy the drinks. If everyone has a coin, whoever has the “least valuable coin” buys the drinks. Since the “value” is determined by backstory and design — both of which are subjective — this game almost always ends in a shouting match over who has to pick up the tab.
5. ‘Stache contests
In case you haven’t nailed down the common thread between all of these traditions, the military is engaged in a perpetual pissing contest. Troops are in constant contest to see who can do literally anything better than the next guy; to see who is the most macho of the troops. It should come as no surprise that one of the most macho things out there, facial hair, gets quantified into some sort of challenge.
The problem with this is that the military doesn’t allow most versions of facial hair — that is, with the exception of a very thin mustache. A word of warning: The first two weeks of a mustache-off makes every contestant look pathetic.
Mustache contests usually begin at the start of the deployment (presumably, when troops’ wives have less of a say in the matter) and, after a certain point, someone is declared a winner. Yet, the Air Force has unanimously decided to make March their official contest month. Whichever airman grows the best mustache by the end of March wins a high five or whatever.
4. The West Point pillow battle royale
At some point during the first years of the most intense academy for the U.S. Army’s future officers, students are offered a unique way of handling the stresses of simultaneously earning a college education while enduring four years of constant military training. These future warriors, trained in all things warfare with the intention of becoming the Army’s next generation of great leaders, settle things the exact same way as children at slumber parties — with a pillow fight.
As goofy as this sounds, things got serious. Yes. “got” — very much in the past tense, as this tradition was unceremoniously banned in 2015 in response to numerous injuries. Most cadets donned full kevlars and vests and beat the hell out of each other with pillows. More than thirty plebes that year were sent to the hospital for serious injuries, despite the strict no-hard-objects-in-the-pillows rule.
Thankfully, they had PT belts on or this could have gotten even more out of hand.
3. Blasting up the lieutenant’s patrol cap
In the technical terms, a “blasting cap” is a small, sensitive primary explosive device used to detonate a larger, more powerful and less-sensitive secondary explosive. Soldiers in the artillery world take this term literally whenever they welcome a new platoon leader.
When the platoon first goes out for a live-fire exercise with a brand new lieutenant, they’ll take the officer’s patrol cap (either willingly or otherwise) and tape it to the end of the barrel or backplate of a rocket pod. Then, the first round goes off; it’ll take the cap with it. The officer is then expected to retrieve the nearly-burnt-to-a-crisp cap so they can remain in uniform after the ceremony is done.
No one really knows when or where this began, but every artillery officer since then has had to buy a new cap the following day.
2. The sword butt tap at weddings
Most of the traditions on this list are kept within the realm of the military and don’t often affect civilians directly — with the major exception of military weddings. They are one of the most beautiful ways to introduce a new civilian spouse into our world. The troop’s comrades will attend wearing full dress uniforms, each carrying a sword to signify the protection they’ll offer the new spouse, as he or she is now kin.
The new comrades will serve as either groomsmen or bridesmaids and post guard outside of the chapel, or wherever the ceremony is held, and form a beautiful archway with their swords under which the married couple will walk.
Then, whoever is at the very end of the archway on the civilian spouse’s side will give a loving spank with their sword. Not a hard one, mind you, just a nice gentle way of letting them know that they’re now a part of the grander military family.
1. The Court of Neptune
Whenever a Navy vessel crosses a certain point on the globe, all sailors who’ve never done so get to be initiated into an unofficial fraternity of sailors who’ve been there before. The most famous example of these ceremonies is the moment a vessel crosses the Equator at any point in the world.
Officially, it’s called the “Crossing the Line” ceremony, but sailors know it as “the Court of Neptune.” The uninitiated (known as “slimy polliwogs”) must bow before King Neptune (as portrayed by the ship’s captain) and entertain his queen, Davy Jones, the Royal Baby, and his dignitaries (portrayed by other high ranking members of the crew) with a talent show.
Regardless of how the young sailors perform, they’re found guilty of being polliwogs and must answer for their crimes. They’re “punished” by eating an extremely spicy or disgusting breakfast and are forced kiss the Royal Baby’s greasy belly. Only then can they have their slimy polliwoginess washed in seawater to finally become trusty shellbacks.
Follow any of that? Neither did any of us other slimy polliwogs…