Incirlik Air Base, Turkey --
The U.S. Air Force has a “problem” with hair.
The image of a professional U.S. male service member has long been a freshly shaved face and close-cropped hair of somebody ready to face war with thousands of similarly groomed battle brothers.
This appearance standard was instituted during World War I, yet warfare and fashion trends have constantly changed over the past century, prompting military personnel to adapt to the evolution of both.
“Take if off!” ordered Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. McConnell as he stuck a finger under the nose of Col. Robin Olds, a U.S. Air Force ace fighter pilot during the Vietnam War.
Olds wore his iconic ‘bulletproof’ handlebar mustache during his command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing during the Vietnam-era, and was as much a source of morale for his Airmen as it was a snub to grooming regulations.
McConnell’s order ended that protest after Olds returned home from southeast Asia in December of 1967, yet his mustache lives on as Airmen worldwide grow them in remembrance of his legacy or to celebrate the unofficial month designated for mustaches.
“Mustache March … it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” said Tech. Sgt. Jason Abney, 39th Security Forces Squadron non-commissioned officer in charge of logistics and resources. “It’s been a time honored tradition that harkens back to the days of Brigadier General Robin Olds. His defiantly unregulated mustache accentuated his coolness and bravado. This is one tradition that’ll never go away.”
While male Airmen have used March for decades to boost morale much like Olds, a renewed interest is developing in talking about facial hair regulations after the recent updates to women’s hair standards in Air Force Instruction 36-2903 allowing female Airmen to wear their hair down.
“(The changes for) women was definitely a positive because there are some who, when they pull their hair back so tight it causes physical bumps, hair loss and headaches,” said Master Sgt. Jenny Patterson, 39th Wing Staff Agencies first sergeant. “I definitely think there is room for improvement for the male shaving standards. I do think that we have to keep in mind the professional image of the male shaving standards and that doesn’t necessarily mean being clean-shaven but it should be groomed.”
As Air Force leadership continues to modernize the force both in rapidly evolving battlefields and it’s internal culture, they look ahead for input to create a more agile force that’s empowered for and by Airmen.
“Like the five stages of grief, I often talk about the five stages of ‘no’,” said Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., U.S. Air Force chief of staff. “I believe it’s important when our Airmen are trying to accelerate change, that they don’t take the first ‘hell no’ as the first and final answer. If it’s something you really believe in, then be consistent and persistent in your approach and get through all five stages of ‘no’. This is how we address bureaucracy, cut through the frozen middle, and empower our Airmen.”
Sometimes it’s good to question the “why” and encouraging Airmen to speak up about issues they care about with leadership has allowed the real possibility of constructive change, as the force works together to better itself while keeping the spirit of its traditions alive.