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These are 5 weird traditions of the US military

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Grog bowl preparation Air Force
Airmen from the 136th Maintenance Group pour the grog into bowls specially acquired for this event February 22, 2020, at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas. During the wing’s Combat Dining-In, Airmen in violation of the rules were sent to the grog, a beverage they will never forget. (Air National Guard photo by Tech Sgt. Lynn Means.)

The military has its own culture that is completely separate from mainstream American culture. It’s full of its own customs, courtesies, and of course, traditions – even each military branch has its own. Some of these traditions are charming: for example, on the Marine Corps’ birthday, the oldest Marine serves the youngest Marine the first piece of the cake. However, other military traditions are a bit more weird and today we are covering five of the weirdest.

1) The Marines’ first deployment head shave 

I’m not sure how far outside of the infantry this tradition goes, so it might be so minor that it is part of the infantry subculture of the Marine subculture. The tradition is that a new Marine going on their first combat deployment isn’t going with a full head of hair, instead, their heads get shaved, much like the first day they show up at boot camp. 

Marines shaving their heads
A recruit wipes freshly shaved hair off the head of Rct. Randall Yannuzzi, Platoon 1022, Charlie Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, after he received his high-and-tight haircut March 25, 2014, on Parris Island, SC. (Photo by Cpl. Octavia Davis/Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, Parris Island)

The head shaving at boot represents you entering the Marine Corps; shaving your head before a combat deployment marks that you’ve truly become an infantryman. Traditionally, senior Marines would pass around the clippers and the shaving would happen in the quad or barracks rooms. You are for sure getting some wacky haircuts along the way, including mohawks, reverse mohawks, and 40-year-old-balding-guy shaves. 

Shaving your head before a combat deployment is widely accepted, but it’s not often forced on a new Marine. Yet, if they don’t want to participate, they are left out of the pre-deployment festivities and fun. I’ve seen junior officers making their way overseas for the first time also getting their heads shaved, so everyone gets involved.

It’s a fun event that is part of the parties before deployment. Yet, as most Marines don’t have a lot of hair to shave and no combat deployments appear in the pipeline, this weird military tradition might fade away.

Related: Keep fit on deployment with these improvised workout equipment ideas

2) The Air Force’s Order of the Sword

Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., Air Force Materiel Command Commander (center) is presented with his personal sword during the Order of the Sword ceremony May 13, 2022 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The Order of the Sword is an honor awarded by noncommissioned officers to recognize an individual who has contributed significantly to the well-being and development of the enlisted force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

The Air Force’s Order of the Sword is typically a unit ceremony in which noncommissioned officers recognize an officer who has made significant strides to improve the lives of the enlisted service members.

Officers who are inducted into the Order receive a sword as an award at a formal dinner night. But the sword is extremely ridiculous: Its design isn’t always the same but it looks like a Japanese anime sword or one from a high-fantasy movie of the 1980s

Swords in the military are ceremonial but often have a connection with history. I guess the Air Force just wants it to stand out and be the exception.

The Order of the Sword started in 1967 and continues to this day. The idea of the tradition comes from the Royal Order of the Sword, which was first started by the Swedish to recognize officers.

3) The US Navy’s Crossing the Line Ceremony

Crossing the Line Ceremony
Sailors aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) participate in a Crossing the Line Ceremony, an ancient seafaring tradition to mark the ship’s passing of the Equator. Carl Vinson is underway in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class James Evans/U.S. Navy)

One of the Navy’s oldest and seemingly most beloved traditions is the Crossing the Line Ceremony. The line refers to the Equator, which ships crisscross all the time, and the crossing is celebrated with a huge ceremony occurring on the ship. The United States Navy isn’t the only Navy to celebrate the crossing: Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom all have their own ceremonies. 

In the U.S. Navy, the ceremony is typically an initiation for pollywogs who have never crossed the Equator; The Line Crossing Ceremony has the poor pollywogs put through a number of initiation rites by the shellbacks. These rites seem to vary wildly, and they are presided over by King Neptune, often an experienced sailor in some silly costume. Some of them are physical challenges, while others are knowledge-based. After crossing the Equator, the pollywogs become shellbacks.

Generally, the ceremony seems to be well regarded and good fun amongst Sailors and Marines involved. 

Related: What are Navy SEAL ‘duck’ insertions and which one would you prefer?

4) The Army’s grog bowl 

Army prepares grog bowl
U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Adair adds the last and final ingredient, his powdered-sugar-filled sock, to the “grog bowl,” during a dining-in ceremony hosted by the 515th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, held on Camp Bucca, Iraq, April 10. All ingredients added to the grog bowl have some significance to the unit and its history. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Adelita Mead/Joint Combat Camera Center Iraq)

One of the Army’s traditions at its various balls and celebrations is drinking from the grog bowl.

The grog bowl could have chunks of old food, weird mixes of alcohol, coffee, dirt, rocks, boots, whatever. What it all adds up to is a disgusting, somewhat liquid-like drink that’s served in a punch bowl.

The mixture is often based on the role of the unit hosting the celebration; the location it’s deploying to; or perhaps some odd tradition linked to the unit. But the goal is to create a disgusting liquid mess that will be drunk by Soldiers. Drinking from the grog ball is called visiting the grog bowl and occasionally other branches also make their own grog.

5) Getting pinned

pinning ceremony
Senior Chief Legalman Myron Chism, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), gets pinned by Master Chief Aviation Maintenance Administrationman Jean Previllon aboard USS Wisconsin (BB 64), June 5. Lincoln is currently undergoing a Refueling and Complex Overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries. (U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Rob Ferrone/RELEASED)

Rank and award pins have two posts that are sharp so they can pierce through the wearer’s uniform and be pinned to it. Normally a pair of frogs are fit to the posts so they don’t poke the wearer. However, this military tradition states that on the day you acquire the pin, you cannot put those frogs on, and anyone of the same rank or who has the same badge as the one you just acquired gets to punch, flick, or pop yours. This painfully drives the pin’s posts into the wearer.

Getting pinned seems to be universal in the U.S. military. It’s usually done in good fun and is seen as an initiation rite, but I still have a scare or two from making lance corporal. Pinning someone isn’t always a clever idea, and this painful event often fits the definition of hazing. 

Many things get pinned to your uniform: for some branches, this includes a new rank upon promotion; for others, it could be jump wings or a dive badge.

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Travis Pike

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.