There’s an old saying I just made up that goes, “You can take the soldier out of the military, but you can’t take the military out of the soldier.”
It sprang to mind one morning last week as I watched Marine Corps Master Sgt. Brion Thomas try on shoes at the Allen Edmonds store in downtown D.C. He’d sampled various dress shoes before store manager Freia Boeckelmentioned that she’d have a new model in stock next month: a boot called the Dalton. In the catalogue, it looked like a combat boot mated with a brown wingtip. Perfect, said MSgt. Thomas.
“It might be that I’ve spent my entire adult life in boots,” explained the 20-year Marine Corps vet. “I just like the way they feel. You don’t have to worry about your trouser leg hanging up on the back of your shoe. And if you say you’re going to put your boot in someone’s backside, you’re not just talking malarkey.”
The Dalton it was.
Not far away, Capt. David Peters tried on a pair of black monk strap shoes. They seemed an appropriate choice: For the past seven years he’s been an Army chaplain.
The two were getting fitted for a free civilian outfit: a pair of shoes courtesy of Allen Edmonds and a custom-made suit courtesy of Hunter & Lords. Master Sgt. Thomas expects to retire in a year and move with wife Alison from Quantico to San Diego. Capt. Peters has just transitioned from active duty Army to the reserves. Both were curious about what it would be like to hang up the uniform.
“I’ve been fortunate that somebody has dressed me for the last 20 years,” said Master Sgt. Thomas. “Join the Marines, and they tell you what to wear.”
“How do you know when you’re a civilian who’s important?” Capt. Peters mused. “In the Army you know who’s important by the rank.”
Of course, everyone is important, he stressed, but “in the civilian world, there’s more subtle rules about how people relate to each other.”
There’s nothing so obvious as a uniform, no stripes, bars or oak leaf clusters providing clues on how to act.
Philip Martin Sr., a traveling tailor with Hunter & Lords, pulled a book of fabric samples and a measuring tape from his bag then started methodically taking down the two men’s vitals, from waist size to the angles of their shoulders.
Capt. Peters, 35, was dressed in his blue-and-white Class B Army service uniform, Master Sgt. Thomas, 38, in his “Service Charlies”: the Marines’ khaki and green Class C uniform.
“The problem with uniforms is they aren’t designed to be sat in,” Master Sgt. Thomas said. “They’re fine when you’re standing like this, but as soon as you try to sit down, the collar’s trying to choke you to death, the jacket’s trying to split in the back.”
He chose a brown fabric and a two-button suit. Capt. Peters went for a three-button in classic black.
“What we’re trying to do is promote more American companies to help our military personnel,” Philip explained. His company worked with Operation Homefront to get the word out, inviting people to nominate worthy troops close to retirement who might need a sartorial boost. Master Sgt. Thomas was nominated by Alison, who sat nearby offering advice. Capt. Peters was nominated by Maj. David Bottoms, one of the chaplains he worked with at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“It’s a lot easier to join the military than to leave the military,” Capt. Peters said. “The fear and anxiety I felt over the last year has been pretty powerful. This in some ways is like a message from the universe that I’ll be okay, that I’ll be able to make the transition, that the civilian world’s not going to destroy me, that I can use a lot of the skills I developed in the military.”
He moved recently to Kentucky, where he’s busy finishing a doctorate in theology, looking for a job (possibly as a hospital chaplain) and preparing to switch denominations. He’ll be ordained soon as an Episcopal pastor.
Episcopal, huh? I asked whether that meant he’d get to wear purple.
“Only the bishops,” he said.
“So you can’t go from captain to bishop?” Philip asked.
“No,” Capt. Peters said. “They like you to spend some time in grade.”