At the Army Expo, It's a Gorge Zone

For those attending the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, an explosion of freebies . . .
For those attending the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, an explosion of freebies . . . (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

It is frequently said that the Army is "stressed" by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, Boeing has a solution.

The defense contractor, at yesterday's annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, handed out hundreds of green foam "stress balls" made in the shape of hand grenades. Just squeeze whenever you're feeling tense -- but don't try to take it through airport security. "Then you'll be really stressed," said the guy handing out the grenades.

The squeezable grenade was a popular idea -- General Kinetics, another defense contractor, handed out similar ones with its own logo -- and so were stress balls generally. The Army Corps of Engineers offered stress balls in the form of hard hats, and Picerne Military Housing gave out stress balls shaped like single-family homes with roofs and chimneys.

These may be hard times for the troops. But the military-industrial complex continues to show the kind of innovation and adaptability that makes America great. Hundreds of defense contractors have filled the Washington Convention Center this week, and they have brought with them an arsenal of promotional materiel to distribute to military procurement officers and other conventioneers.

A quick walk-through of the exhibit hall yesterday produced 20 pounds of swag: three coffee mugs, three calculators, five Koozies, three bandannas, six canvas tote bags, three ChapSticks, a clock that projects the time onto a wall, a pair of sunglasses with a visor clip, a piggy bank, a grooming kit, a jar opener, a shoe polisher, a screwdriver, a flashing yo-yo, a football, a golf ball, two Frisbees, a bullet casing, a "tuberculocidal" wipe, 35 pens, a few dozen key chains, flashlights and lanyards, and sundry stickers, chip-bag clips, pads, calendars, mints, mirrors, mouse pads, bracelets, magnifiers, luggage grips and cellphone holders.

"I go home with a couple hundred pounds of stuff," said Bill Veilleux, staffing a booth for Teledyne Reynolds. "Anyone who's done work for me -- they get a bag of stuff." The Teledyne booth features a $50,000 "helmet tracker" system, but conventioneers are showing more interest in Teledyne's baseball caps, beer coolers, pen-and-pad sets, and sewing kits with 10 colors of thread. "If somebody has cooler stuff, I trade," Veilleux said.

The collecting of freebies is part of the culture of military conventions like the Army association's annual gathering. In an early start to the trick-or-treat season, officers in uniform join teenage boys in a trek up and down the aisles of the exhibition floor with bags full of goodies.

And the biggest haul is yet to come. At Wednesday night's black-tie dinner, General Dynamics will give away Camelbak hydration backpacks. In past years, one ammunition company gave out "shot" glasses with tequila, while Oshkosh Truck has offered hanging toiletry bags, self-charging flashlights and camp chairs with coolers. And this Wednesday's gift? "It's classified," said Joaquin Salas, an Oshkosh marketing manager.

Of course, even the most lavish of these trinkets cost little for the several hundred defense contractors that laid out tens of thousands of dollars to get their wares in front of military purchasers at this week's convention.

By that standard, the freebies are peanuts -- sometimes literally. Oberon Associates had vacuum-packed peanuts, while Vectronix and L-3 splurged on Swiss chocolates. The makers of the C-27S popped fresh popcorn. The Army Materiel Command supplied pizza combos, beef jerky and caffeinated chewing gum. Tadiran provided espresso and soft drinks, while Goodyear distributed bottled water. But Hesco Bastion had the most popular booth: It offered free bottles of Budweiser. Hundreds of beers had been consumed before yesterday's lunch hour had ended.

It's not entirely clear, however, that handing out really cool pink plastic propellers, as Northrop Grumman did, would make somebody more likely to buy one of the company's $6 million helicopters, one of which was on the exhibition floor yesterday. "We'd get more people" if we served beer, said Mark Powers, working the Day & Zimmermann booth. "I don't know if we'd get more customers."

Still, it's hard not to think less of Cummins, which offered passersby a single red golf tee, than Edo, which provided pouches with six tees and two ball markers. Likewise, practically every booth gave out pens, but Baldor Generators provided three-color highlighters.

Woe to the vendor who didn't offer freebies. SealSkinz, a maker of waterproof socks and gloves, had nothing to give away, so one conventioneer picked up a pair of socks from the exhibit table and walked off -- forcing a company representative to demand the return of the merchandise.

Some tried to arrange a quid pro quo. Medpros offered a foldable Frisbee -- but only to those who watched the demo. And others kept a private reserve behind the counter, bringing out the best freebies only for swag-seekers who knew to ask for it -- the military convention's equivalent of ordering off the menu.

At the Drash booth yesterday, the off-the-menu swag was a 128-megabyte flash drive on a deluxe lanyard. On a signal from her boss, a woman at the Drash booth lifted a curtain and exposed the stash. "Only for special people," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company