Getting on the bus: Starting now, the ABU is my uniform

  • Published
  • By Maj. Joe Golembiewski
  • 92nd Communications Squadron Commander
I remember getting on the bus. It was 1988, and I had just graduated from the 3723d Basic Military Training Squadron. I was making the not-so-long bus ride to the 3270th Technical Training Group on the other side of Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and I was wearing the solid green utility uniform we called fatigues. During basic training some technical instructors had been prone to wear the cool new Battle Dress Uniform, or BDU, and I couldn't wait to get BDUs of my own. Now a boot camp graduate, I felt certain that BDUs would be my next rite of passage in the United States Air Force.
     I was disappointed to find out that I would not be permitted to wear BDUs until Phase 4 of technical training. "When's that?" I asked. Phase 4 was typically our 6-month mark in the service, assuming we didn't do anything wrong to get held in a lower phase longer. Six months? That's forever.
     Phase 4 be darned. On my very next payday I went to the Military Clothing Sales Store and bought my first set of BDUs. I knew it'd be months before I could wear the new uniform, but I wanted to be ready. Sure, the shelves seemed well-stocked -- but they could run out by the time I needed them. I decided the best course of action was to get one set immediately, complete with my cool new Airman First Class stripes, and then pick up additional BDUs over the next few months so I could be ready for that big day when I wouldn't have to wear fatigues any longer.
     For lots of reasons technical school dragged for me. I was learning to be a Cryptographic Equipment Systems technician, and frankly I wasn't exactly the best and brightest in my class. I wasn't the weakest link, but I held my breath when scores were announced for every exam and hoped not to get voted off the island. It wasn't just the academics that were tough, though. Just before I was supposed to reach Phase 4, I missed the last bus back from an off-base movie theater and wound up walking from San Antonio's Ingram Mall to base. I banged on the door to the dormitory and pleaded with the door guard to not report me. He did. Fearing the worst, I thought about how I'd explain an Article 15, demotion or being kicked out of the military to everyone I knew. I'd never get to wear those BDUs. Those beautiful, cool BDUs.
     But I did get to wear them. Oh, I got talked to about missing curfew, all right. And I wound up having to pull weekend Charge of Quarters, or CQ, duty for what seemed like forever -- but I pulled that CQ duty wearing my brand spanking new BDUs.
     When I reported to my first real assignment in the 1908th Communications Squadron at England Air Force Base, La., I was stunned to see so many people walking around in fatigues. Everyone hadn't embraced the uniform change just yet and a lot of people thought more of their fatigues than I did. Some people, apparently, preferred the fatigues because they were easier to care for, quicker to press and kept a near-permanent crease. Go figure. Still, many a night I would watch TV with the ironing board in front of me as I starched and creased those woodland BDUs just right. Sure, it took a long time, but the uniform sure did look good when you sewed down those pocket flaps and creased the stripes just right. The perfect uniform, I thought.
     We just reached the BDU phase-out date this week, and I'm a little sad about that because for a long time, I've identified myself with this particular uniform. I've been in far off places and been comforted when I saw others wearing the same garb. I've used permanent markers to color in stains. I've worn winter weights and summer weights, brown t-shirts and black t-shirts, green jungle boots and black jump boots, field jackets and Gortex jackets, ball caps and BDU hats, leather name patches and stripes. I was wearing BDUs under my chemical suit when scud missiles were exploding overhead in the Saudi Arabian sky and I thought I was going to die. I was wearing BDUs in the hospital when my wife gave birth to our son and we welcomed him into our lives.
     It's been months now since I've worn my BDUs. I've tried hard to embrace the replacement, but it hasn't come easily. Oh, it's not that I dislike the Airman Battle Uniform, or ABU. No, I love that it's wash and wear -- no more hours spent ironing out wrinkles on this modern-day garment. And the extra pockets add convenience, too. The color was bothersome to me at first, but I've gotten used to the lighter shades.
     No, it's not the uniform itself that was hard for me to accept. It was change. The BDU was "the new thing" in the Air Force at about the same time that I was "the new guy" in the Air Force. I never thought of myself as one who was afraid of change. Just the opposite: I love change. I love being in the Air Force because I get to go to a lot of different places and do a lot of different things. But there's something about changing the uniform I've worn for about two decades that makes me pause. I identify with the BDU because we grew up together, and I don't like thinking of that uniform -- my uniform -- as the old uniform. But it is. And now a new generation of Airmen has a new uniform to identify with.
     Change is hard, but I'm getting on the bus. Starting now the ABU is my uniform. I love my ABUs!