Wednesday 2 April 2014 by Alison Wishart. No comments
Opinion, views and commentary, Personal Stories, uniforms, Afghanistan, tattooes, 7RAR, scarification

Day 22: Uniform(ity)

Having lived on army bases for the past 19 days, I am surrounded by a sea of camouflage. The uniform for men and women is the same: “camo” cargo pants and long sleeved shirt, boots, t-shirt and a hat whenever you are outside, even at night time. The only thing that makes people look a little bit different is the insignia which tells you their rank, and the patches on their sleeves which tell you the unit they belong to. But these are symbols that enforce a group identity, not individuality.

Soldiers in uniform eating at the Mess, Al Minhad Air Base
Soldiers in uniform eating at the Mess, Al Minhad Air Base

The dress code even extends to hair and accessories.  Men have to shave (unless they are serving on a ship or in the Special Forces) and women have to pin their hair up in a bun with no escaping wispy-bits! No jewellery is allowed, including wedding rings. One young woman I spoke to who had been married less than a year before she deployed, said she wore her wedding and engagement ring to bed at night, but took it off when she dressed in her uniform each morning.

Military personnel are usually allowed to wear their own clothes for PT (personal training), but not at Multinational Base Tarin Kot. Here the CO (Commanding Officer) of 7RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) Task Group followed the American lead and organised for his troops to have a special PT uniform of t-shirt (with their logo), black shorts and cap. They were to wear a uniform at all times, and could only wear “civies” in their bedrooms. They had to wear their proper uniform to the mess and always carry a weapon. He called this “posturing” – always looking organised and ready for whatever the enemy might throw at them. He didn’t want any of his troops to get caught out like the chap in this photo by David Guttenfelder (scroll down to no. 33).

When Ben Quilty painted Australians serving in Afghanistan, he asked them to pose nude. He stripped away the protective covering of their uniform and asked them to expose themselves physically and emotionally.  Naked, they have no rank, no armour, no weapon.They are human beings at war.

I’ve been wearing a similar uniform “in country” of long pants, t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, boots and a hat (when I can find it) every day.  While it is nice not to have to think about what to wear, and handy to have clothes with so many pockets; I don’t like it. It makes me feel asexual. The uniform is so shapeless and exactly the same for men and women. I suspect this is a strategy to deter fraternisation! Not being able to wear any jewellery, fancy hair clips or nail polish also stifles my self-expression. I feel like I’m back at school.

From what I’ve observed, the strict uniform code doesn’t extend to tattoos. Is this because tattoos have some connection with warriors? Think of the Maoris and the Picts from Scotland with their blue woad. In Australia, Aboriginal men scarify the bodies of adolescent boys as part of their initiation rite. The markings also indicate that they are now FAMs: Fighting Age Males.

While the tattoos of most military personnel are covered by the neck to ankle uniform, I’ve seen a few peeking out of collars and cuffs. It’s the one mark of individuality and self-decoration they have left. Perhaps tattoos are common in the military because they help people state: this is who I am and this is how I’m unique.

LCpl Tamara Jesenkovic's tattoo. Her sister has the same design on her ankle. They had the tattoos done together before Tamara deployed to Afghanistan.  Photo by G1.
LCpl Tamara Jesenkovic's tattoo. Her sister has the same design on her ankle. They had the tattoos done together before Tamara deployed to Afghanistan. Photo by G1.

Twelve months ago I went to the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) with the Australian War Memorial. I was working on an oral history-photographic project. The core part of the project was interviewing and photographing 19 currently serving members of the ADF - from the army, navy and airforce - before, during and after their deployment in 2013 to the MEAO.  In another 12 months time, you should be able to see the results of this work in an exhibition which will travel around Australia.

These blog posts were written while I was in the MEAO but were not uploaded to the AWM website at that time.

I am planning to upload one blog post each day, exactly 12 months on from the actual day I was on deployment. We left Canberra on 12 March 2013.