“Some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world. A veteran doesn’t have that problem.” –Ronald Reagan 

As we continue to celebrate National Veterans and Military Families Month, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the words and phrases that are supposedly being used by members of the various branches of our armed forces, along with a few that I remember using – the ones that can be printed, anyway – during my hitch in the Army many moons ago.

First stop, basic training. If you were in the Navy, there’s a good chance that your introduction to all things naval came at the boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, or, as the recruits like to call it, “Great Mistakes.”

My Army basic training took place at Fort Jackson, South Carolina (which was named after President Andrew Jackson), but many others have been shipped to places such as Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (also known as “Fort Lost in the Woods, Misery”).

It’s at these places that recruits become “G.I.s,” a term that likely came about because just about everything they use or wear – except for a couple sets of “civvies” (civilian clothes) – is government issue. Everything has a part number, including people, who are sometimes told that they’re “a good piece of gear.” Their Social Security numbers are their part numbers.

In basic we got to “double time” (jog) to the rifle range and were told by the D.I. (drill instructor) to “grab some real estate” (do push ups) when we screwed up. And if we weren’t some place “15 minutes prior to 15 minutes prior,” we were late, which meant we had a lot of time to “stand by to stand by” (hurry up and wait), especially in the chow line.


Once basic training was over, it was on to New Jersey for AIT (advanced individual training) for my MOS (military occupational specialty). Each MOS has its own alphanumeric designation, and mine was 26V10 (the V was pronounced “Victor,” as in the NATO phonetic alphabet), which had the impressive-sounding name “strategic microwave systems operation and maintenance.”

Most of my electronics training came in the form of TMs (technical manuals, as opposed to FMs, which are used out in the field), and a group of instructors who basically taught us the tests we’d soon be taking.

Once I was assigned to my actual job, I discovered that it consisted mainly of replacing defective electronics modules and sending them out for repair. If a piece of equipment was determined to be “fubar” (“fouled up beyond all repair” – or something like that), that would cause a “snafu” (“situation normal, all fouled up” – or something like that).

I’ve heard that people in the Air Force who have desk jobs are said to be in the “Chair Force,” or “flying a desk.” We used to refer to them as “wing nuts.” But then those of us at our microwave site didn’t exactly consider ourselves to be fierce fighters either. Instead of “airborne rangers,” we referred to ourselves as “chairborne strangers.”

As I got closer to my discharge date, or ETS (expiration, term of service), I became a short timer, which allowed me to walk around and yell “SHORT” pretty much whenever I felt like it (except when there was a sergeant or officer in the vicinity) and irritate my coworkers by reminding them that “I’m so short I can walk under that door.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com. 

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