Shower Patrol: a Postcard From the Waning Days of the Combat Air Force

For a long time, combat aviation culture dominated the Air Force, for better or worse. Today, it has been all but extinguished.
For a long time, combat aviation culture dominated the Air Force, for better or worse. Today, it has been all but extinguished.

The Air Force became a historically and globally formidable organization not chiefly by the power of technology, as the conventional wisdom holds, but by the greatness of its squadrons. The squadron was traditionally the domain where airpower practitioners of one stripe or another cohered into tightly-knit, mutually supportive teams. They didn’t just wear the same uniforms and practice the same specialties, they shared a common identity.

That identity revolved around making the enemy suffer by making optimum use of time, energy, and technological advantage. Everything else was relegated to secondary status, and special contempt was reserved for administrative nonsense and its champions. They were held in check with a determined air choke. There was an unspoken understanding that if the service’s long-suffering, aircrew-hating support cabal ever got its hands on the controls, it would steer the service into the ground … or perhaps just back into the Department of the Army.

Today, many believe this is exactly what’s unfolding. It’s becoming more and more difficult for today’s airmen to remember what life was like in the Air Force before it lost its sense of itself. Before it forgot how to laugh at itself, how to distinguish between mistakes and crimes, and how to tolerate a healthy level of push-back from its airmen. Soon, a culture that masked deadly serious mental acuity and lethally precise teamwork behind a veil of seeming irreverence will be gone for good. This is not an insignificant thing. To the extent the countenancing of a devil-may-care defiance among its warrior class was part of the service’s grand equilibrium, it risks a sort of endemic organizational wobbliness by killing off a part of itself in order to aggrandize another part. Can a form of warfare born out of challenging unwarranted authority and dependent upon bending the laws of nature thrive with a conformist, dogma-driven culture that believes no rule is specious and all rules are created equally? We may yet find out.

But before we do, a stroll down memory lane is in order.

Robin Olds understood that to build an airpower culture meant creating space for airmen to push boundaries and feel as though they were bucking the system. It was a complex theory about human behavior that he and other successfully baked into service culture. Today, it's been replaced by the simplistic notion that humans can and must be controlled, and that obedience to scripture is more important than individual and team ingenuity.
Robin Olds understood that to build an effective airpower team meant creating space for airmen to push boundaries and feel as though they were bucking the system. It was a complex theory about human behavior that he and others successfully baked into service culture. Today, it’s been replaced by the simplistic notion that airmen can and must be totally controlled, and that obedience to scripture is more important than individual and team ingenuity.

The email excerpted below, with only slight edits, virally made the distro rounds several years ago. The author remains unattributed, with various urban legends offering diverse accounts of his identity and what happened to him at the time of the message, which definitely became visible to the fun police of the day. It was said that many a general privately heralded the message while many a Chief wanted its author disciplined. It’s not clear which side won that battle, but the Chiefs have clearly won the war for the soul of the Air Force.

The email was a sensation. It made people laugh, and exposed those who didn’t at least chuckle as part of the problem. More poignantly, it captured an essential truth about USAF deployed life at the height of ops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as demands reached an all-time high, focus and prioritization unraveled, with legions of rulebook wizards roaming deployed bases armed with righteous indignation, command sponsorship, and not a solitary clue.

Over the past decade-plus, the Air Force turned on its warfighters, continually unleashing wave after wave of these clueless rule guardians to harass and rein in its warrior class. Believing it could get the same combat effect without tolerating the rough edges and strident attitudes of decades past, it reminded aircrews at every turn that they weren’t important, weren’t special, and weren’t indispensable. It pushed back against a perceived sense of entitlement that support officers and senior NCOs opined had become ingrained in the service’s culture.

But in attempting to do something that might have been valid on some level, it scorched the Earth, encouraging self-loathing rather than humility; service at the expense of pride rather than service before self; instead of trimming back on an entitlement mindset that may or may not have ever existed in the first place, leaders made many of their most core, essential personnel feel de-valued and totally unappreciated.

Today, Gen. Welsh and his fellow senior leaders seem mystified about why pilots are bailing out faster than they can be replaced. They think it’s about money. It isn’t, and Welsh should know that. Back in 2010 when he commanded US Air Forces in Europe, he surveyed the field to understand why fighter pilots in particular were leaving and seemed disgruntled.

They gave him the answers, but he didn’t act. Some believed he was keeping his powder dry until he got to the Pentagon, but they were mistaken. Fast-forward to 2015 and the same problems exist, having greatly worsened.

There’s not enough money in the world to compensate for a loss of combat aviation culture, and the first people to notice will be those whose combat success depends on that culture. They’d rather be homeless panhandlers hustling for bus fare and pissing in the gutter than be part of a team that’s not even trying to win, and is making itself miserable on the deliberate path to mediocrity and failure.

The Air Force of 2015 is foreign from any military organization that has ever made a determinative difference in a fight of any consequence. Worse yet, it’s still in a dive.

But we’re not so far removed from a service culture that eschewed political correctness, and in doing so, affirmed the spirit of the warfighter. Some day, we might get back there. Until then, we’ll have to make due with time capsules like the email below, which is like a postcard from the waning days when airmen were still airmen rather than glorified campfire strummers and pimpled counselors at Camp Cupcake.

Enjoy, with a warning that what follows is not politically correct, may offend multiple groups of people, and is in no way consistent with Air Force Instruction 1-1 or Gen. Welsh’s 24/7 professionalism doctrine. Be warned also that it may make your belly hurt from laughter.

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It’s time for the latest and greatest tale from the land of the permanent sun. Gird your loins, stock up on Valtrex and Gatorade & get your piddle packs ready, because this one is a doozy!

First off, allow me to preface all of this with an observation that may be obvious to some. Apparently, as one rises in the enlisted ranks, life becomes less and less about the kicking of ass, taking of names, and chewing of bubble gum. In fact, the closer one gets to the exalted rank of Chief, the more one’s day revolves around completely losing your shit over relatively minor (and sometimes nonexistent) uniform infractions. Believe me when I say that Chiefs “losing their shit” is an understatement. We’re talking completely bugfuck, batshit, “I’m-going-to-punch-you-in-the-face-till-you-stop-breathing-and-then-wear-your-face-like-a-mask-while-i-do-my-little-kooky-dance-if-you-don’t-zip-your-pocket-shut” crazy. The troops here are more afraid of being ‘Chiefed’ than they are of the insurgents lobbing a rocket into the crapper while they’re in the middle of dropping off some timber. I forwarded the email to some of y’all documenting the latest in the 36-2903 jihad: the wearing of 550 cord bracelets. Apparently, these are considered uber verboten due to them not being ‘conservative’ (conservative defined as gold or silver). Fun side note, an army field manual actually describes 550 cord bracelets thusly: “A paracord bracelet provides an easy way to carry a large amount of cord for an emergency, whether in combat, as an outdoor survival tool, or merely when a piece of equipment needs securing.”

To date, people all around The Iraq have been at the receiving end of holy righteous fury for such treasonous infractions as:

-PT shirt not tucked in
-PT shirt too sweaty
-Socks too short
-Socks too long
-Socks wrong color
-Mustache too wide
-Mustache too long
-Mustache too scraggly
-Mustache too mustache-y outside of the month of March
-Riding a bike on the sidewalk (the only alternative being to drag it through 8-inch deep gravel)
-Wearing a two-piece bathing suit at the pool
-Wearing a feminine bathing suit at the pool
-Listening to music at the pool
-Listening to music outside

And the holy grail of all infractions:

-Not wearing your reflective belt

I could rant for a few more days about this, but it’s really just background info. The newest big thing to come down from the senior NCO staff meetings, which I can only imagine look like a council of sith lords, plotting the destruction of innocent worlds, is the implementation of mandatory 5-minute ‘combat showers.’ It is into this WORLD that I now take you…

So there I was, no shit, enjoying my warm-ish Iraqi shower. I had just finished shampooing my mustache and was contemplating the wisdom of my recent Crocs purchase. You see Crocs, though phenomenally ridiculous & a mere molecule away from the Jellies of the 1980s, actually make excellent combat shower shoes. They are rather soft, so you don’t crack your heels on the rocks. They are waterproof & drain well, which is good for obvious reasons. Finally, the sole is quite thick, which is essential when considering the living petri dish of athlete’s foot & so-called “desert jellyfish” that live on the floors of the showers. As I stood there, attempting to avoid the ever-present vinyl embrace of the shower curtain, I couldn’t help but notice that it was moving toward me even more than usual. I nary had time to ponder the strangeness of this when to my surprise, a pale befreckled hand appeared and began its epic quest toward my ROZ (Restricted Operating Zone for you non-military types…)

Now you have to understand that these shower stalls are quite confining, and remind me in many ways, of the tiny cell I lived in, with only a bag over my head for clothing and a Folger’s can for company, in between beatings and forced labor at SERE school. So naturally, when I saw this little paw coming through my lower rathole door, I freaked right the fuck out.

Combine this with a tale I had recently heard about one of the locals on base that the girls had all nicknamed “Grab & Go.” This nickname is clever for several reasons. First, in AF terms, a touch & go is when you do a practice landing and take right back off immediately afterwards. Grab & Go is the name of the 24-hour dining facility on base where you can run in, grab food quickly, then bounce. The ladies had named this enterprising young TCN “Grab & Go” because of his endearing habit of blitzing into the women’s showers, throwing back curtains, and rapidly groping as much lady flesh as he could before bolting out the door. Now, I had heard this fine specimen of chivalry had been arrested, but having just sat through my briefing on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, I had quickly considered the possibility that a copycat Grab & Go of the “not-funny-haha, funny-queer” persuasion was on the loose & on the hunt for junks to manhandle.

Naturally assuming that I was about to be the star of my own little Crying Game, I did the only thing I could think of. I lashed out with a wicked judy chop toward an area I assumed the offending Limnadian’s face would occupy. I was pleasantly surprised when my curtain-covered-fist-of-justice made contact with something solid. The soul on the receiving end of that pimp-slap was not quite so pleased. In fact, the sound he made can only be described as a mixture of heart-stopping shock, noticeable surprise, and significant pain, all muffled by the aforementioned curtain-covered-fist-of-justice that was by now somewhere between his lips and his tonsils. I wish I could accurately convey that sound to all of you, but the best I can do is to say that it sort of sounded like:


The next few seconds witnessed me quickly shut off the water, tear open the shower curtain that so recently had been the Robin to my pervert-stomping Batman, reach for my towel and wrap it quickly around my waist like a Spartan toga and give this finless brown trout my very best impersonation of Remo’s “I-just-read-the-short-tour-credit-letter-and-I’m-going-to-punch-babies” face. So it is with the image of me towering over this little fat dude in AF PTs, looking and feeling like a slightly less ripped King Leonidas in 300 (THIS IS… MY SHOWER!!), that I “politely” asked him what the fuck he was doing.

His response was to inform me that I was in violation of the 5-minute combat shower rule, which he had taken upon himself to enforce by attempting to turn off the water in my shower (an act I took to be a grievous airspace violation) and he was going to report me for assault. My response to all of this would have brought tears to your eyes, peace to the world, and an end to world hunger. I unfortunately cannot remember exactly what I said to this wannabe Chief, so this is just a tribute (with approximately 69 fewer instances of the word “fuck”):

“Good sir, I shant think you shall reporteth me for assault, for I was merely defending myself, and as an American fighting man, thou can only expecteth me to support and defend mine giblets from all enemies, foreign & domestic. Furthermore, one could argue, friend, that you were attempting to sexually assaulteth me, and mine fragile psyche may never recover from such a violation. Also, thou seem to have championed a cause that is trivial at best, and unwinnable at worst. To put “saved 69,000 gallons of Iraqi water by infringing on sovereign penile territory” on thine performance report would not only bring shame upon thee and thine household for generations to come, but would likely giveth unwashed hippies worldwide yet another reason to defile the noble intentions of the conflict we find ourselves in. A conflict, that need I remindeth you, thou hast chosen to fight by groping genitalia instead of doing something that even remotely contributes to the war effort.

Lasty, and I assure thee that I cannot emphasize this point enough; I AM A MOTHERFUCKING PILOT AND I WILL SHOWER FOR AS LONG AS I DAMN WELL PLEASE! Thou however, are quite clearly a cowardly shoe clerk with a split lip, a pregnant belly and nothing better to do than harass the executors of the mission that thou doth ‘support’. So if you would do me the kindness of getting the prompt fuck out of mine face before I wedgeth my oh-so-comfortable and practical Crocs down your throat & up thy bung till they doth meet in the middle!”

So it was at the end of this exchange that Sergeant Sausage of the Shower Patrol scurried away to find another cause to champion. I trust it will likely be one where he sits in his cubicle for 6-7 hours a day, 4 days a week, with every Thursday off for “training”, spending most of his time complaining about aircrew whilst insisting to all who will hear that he too is a WARRIOR and without his ‘ceaseless’ efforts, this mission would fail.

I, meanwhile, got back in the shower and stood there under the running water for a solid 20 minutes. I even shampooed my mustache again. Just because I could.

Too Da Roo, Muddafukkas!

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