Friday, March 25

Booty Call

It began quite early. Right at the very beginning, actually. At first, it seemed almost a taboo. Many were too shy to approach their targets, fearing either misunderstanding or outright rejection, while others remained none-the-wiser as to whether or not such behaviour would even be condoned by their commanding officers. Enlightenment gradually unfurled when the COs themselves entered into the fun and games. Some went about it with a startlingly brazen assurance, bragging about their various successful conquests and even flashing material tokens as proof. Others opted for a more covert approach, themselves fearing public rejection and ridicule. In any case, it didn’t take long before almost everyone of every rank had joined in on the act, choosing his or her partner-in-crime before proceeding to tear off items of clothing or rustle roughly through each others’ pockets before arriving at the desired item. I myself managed a rather proud (if somewhat public) "encounter" with a handsome US Army captain from Texas. In today‘s age of modernity, the internet may provide limitless opportunities to execute such carry-on, but there will forever remain something infinitely more satisfying in doing it in person, with our fellow man.

Indeed the collecting and exchanging of military paraphernalia and souvenirs is one of the highlights of any inter-army overseas mission. (Well what on God’s green Earth did you THINK I was talking about?)

The Americans are overwhelmingly the main attraction, the sheer scale of kit as well as the manufacturing quality guaranteeing indefatigable queues for a little swapping action with the boys sporting the stars and stripes. The general flow of traffic sees the newly-arrived swarm around the ready-to-leave, the latter undoubtedly over-burdened with unwanted (and in many cases, unused) articles of kit and clothing. All soldiers, upon deployment, are issued with their own Velcro patches. These patches denote every affiliation imaginable from their platoon, company and regiment all the way up through their battle group and onwards to the nation in question itself. Such patches were quick and constant movers on the market, easily traded against one another with little room to confuse their value against their counterparts. The dollops of trickiness thicken once the swap-shop veers from the egalitarian items into the dimly lit backroom of odds and ends. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is where being a Legionnaire catapults you right to the top of that queue.

Now the French Foreign Legion is probably at its most exposed and transparent in today’s world of high-speed information exchange. Google "Légion Etrangére" and the results cascade into the tens of thousands. Official websites, unofficial websites, message boards, books, films, even blogs (zing!) all seek to unravel the mysteries of life within this enigmatic institution. Settling on a perfect truth is nigh on impossible, but various garnered titbits can still succeed in opening minute portals to life in the legion. For almost every other military force on the planet, however, the Legion will always be the Legion. Through either campaigns served in its company, Beau Geste-style stories regaled by grandfathers to grandsons over a bag of Worthers Originals or merely the sight of Jean Claude Van Damme marching out past those marauding North African tribesmen with his dirtied vest and head held high at the end of "Legionnaire", there’s something about us that draws firm handshakes and photo requests from fellow soldiers the world over. With that said, handshakes and photo requests have found themselves in rather diminished demand on this particular tour.

The success of the hit Hollywood movie "The Hurt Locker" placed the US forces’ IED badges in the upper echelons of the thermometer concerning all things "spoils". My own squad leader had me approach a staff sergeant for his badges back at Bagram. I fully imagined that our guy would offer up his own Legion badges in exchange. How mortified I was to instead watch him produce a handful of various Legion key rings from his pocket, silently allowing the staff sergeant take his pick. It all played out like an end-of-interview scene from "School Around the Corner". I still cringe when I think about it. I managed to obtain my own collection of IED and Airborne badges completely by chance, but not without some hard work as acting translator for the entire French contingent. But as mentioned earlier, the swapping didn’t cease with those Velcro badges. A Romanian chap exchanged his Kèpi Blanc for an entire US Army uniform, a baseball cap and an Afghan SIM card with €10 credit already in place. The American was ecstatic about his brand new acquisition until his friends started in on the guilt trip.

"Dude, do you know what they have to do in order to get that crazy hat?"

"Seriously dude, he’s like gonna go to jail and shit, you can’t give that shit away dawg!"


The poor soldier’s face dropped as he imagined brutal tortures and punishments for the Legionnaire who discarded his Kèpi Blanc, and all for a uniform and a SIM card. Little did he know that most of the guys came over pre-prepared with two, sometimes THREE Kèpis specifically intended as leverage during such exchanges. Personally, I still have my first ever Kèpi and would never consider giving it away (or any Kèpi, for that matter). Sure, one can buy a Kèpi for around €20 either at the regiment or online, but it still wouldn’t sit too well with me. Yes, ME! The perpetually dissenting Legionnaire. What’s happened to me at all over here??

At the FOB and well into our six-month mission, the circus continues. In amongst the various market stalls set-up over here selling local trinkets, an embroiderer has opened a little shop. Catering to those with an insatiable appetite for souvenirs, our thimble-clad hero specialises in custom patches and the stitching of cool, edgy slogans (if you’re fourteen!) on t-shirts, among other things. Soon enough (and rather inevitably so), the race was on for each section, each squad and even each pair of BFFs to set to work on designing their own cute little sticky strip of exclusivity. The overriding trend was to design Platoon t-shirts (or, in our case, hoodies). The plain green hoody itself cost €18, the embroidery an additional €15. It was not optional, all members of the platoon being obliged to fork out, and pressured into its completion/collection before a scheduled platoon barbeque. Several big shots from our company and those of the French regular army were invited, hence the haste to show off our latest wardrobe addition. Of course, such was the unprecedented amount of gear being churned out by the embroidery shop that controls had to be put in place. This resulted in the total prohibition of all unauthorised materials being displayed anywhere outside of our own living quarters. Our platoon hoody included. Merci Mon. Lieutenant.

I was never one for the whole beret-on-a-skull scene, proudly sporting angry, infantile slogans emblazoned on my chest, and so my load will be a little lighter on the return flight than some of the guys inexplicably intoxicated by clothing garments screaming "Taliban Hunting Club" and other such nonsense. I do find t-shirts displaying simple regimental insignia a tad more acceptable, with a mate of mine, Jim’s website displaying some of the better quality stuff out there today. Still, I guess it’s a personal choice. To each his own, let bygones be bygones, and everything else reminiscent of Jerry Springer’s final thought. One thing’s for sure: the only thing greater than one’s pride at being in the army is the desire to shout it from the rooftops.

I just wish that they’d shout it more articulately.

5 comments:

  1. Oh c'mon! Surely you aren't tellin me that you don't own one of those oh so special t-shirts that proclaim..."Taliban--It's whats for dinner!"

    Forever more! To think of the money I've spent supporting those units and companies that make those t-shirts for 'em...

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  2. Haha, sorry K, but a man's gotta keep an element of style even, in a war zone!!

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  3. swap ya a 1991 Athlone IT rag week t-shirt for a patch!

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  4. You're on Ken! I need a new cloth for cleaning the rifle, haha!

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