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Honor the Fallen
Commands across the Marine Corps are clamping down on troops who wear bracelets that commemorate friends killed in action. And Marines are fuming about it.
KIA bracelets worn by Marines vary in design; some are rubber, most are metal. They are, however, considered unauthorized jewelry, according to Marine Corps uniform orders, but the regulation being used to ban them is enforced unevenly across the force. Some commands turn a blind eye to it, with even senior leaders wearing them, while others have told Marines they are prohibited.
From North Carolina to California and Japan, where crackdowns are known to have occurred, and elsewhere around the fleet, the reaction from Marines has been strong and substantial.
A call for opinions posted in late September on our website generated more than 200 responses — and more than 1,000 "likes" on the social networking site Facebook. Some Marines said they would risk nonjudicial punishment and continue wearing their KIA bracelets. Another respondent offered a more visceral response, saying, "They will have to pry it off my cold dead wrist to take it away from me. Don't let them take yours away."
Others have said that as Marines, it is their duty to follow regulations to the letter but that they hope senior leaders will consider allowing the bracelets to be worn while in uniform.
Feedback from the fleet has caught the top enlisted Marine's attention. Sgt. Maj. Mike Barrett is looking into the issue of wearing KIA bracelets in uniform, said his spokesman, Gunnery Sgt. Chanin Nuntavong.
Here's the deal: There is nothing on the books explicitly banning KIA bracelets by name, but the Marine Corps order governing uniforms, MCO P1020.34G, does not authorize jewelry — with only a few exceptions, including discreet watches, rings, necklaces and simple earrings for women. When the Marine Corps Uniform Board last made recommendations in 2009, it did not address KIA bracelets. And to date, there is no effort to do so, said Barbara Hamby, a spokeswoman for Marine Corps Systems Command, which oversees the uniform board.
The board has never addressed the issue, she said.
Among rank-and-file Marines, the greatest source of confusion — and frustration — lies in a passage of the uniform order that approves Marines to wear bracelets honoring prisoners of war or those who are considered missing in action. POW/MIA bracelets are similar in size and style to KIA bracelets. They were authorized by a Secretary of the Navy message published in 1972 during the Vietnam War. SECNAV is not considering a change to the regulations, either.
Few active-duty Marines wear POW/MIA bracelets because they don't hold the same relevance to the current generation of combat veterans. More than 82,000 U.S. troops are still unaccounted for going back to World War II. Today, just two are listed as missing or captured in action in Afghanistan or Iraq: Army Sgt. Bowe R. Bergdahl and Army Staff Sgt. Ahmed K. Altaie.
"In different wars, there were so many POWs and so many missing in action — that was something they allowed Marines to do, maybe for morale, so that they would always remember," said Sgt. Megan Cavanaugh, who is assigned to the Marine Senate Liaison Office in Washington, D.C. "But in our time, we don't have a lot of missing in action. We don't have a lot of prisoners of war."
The meaning of KIA bracelets today is the same as the meaning of POW/MIA bracelets during past conflicts, Cavanaugh said. They honor those who didn't come home.
"There are few ways to make the loss of a Marine bearable," she said, "but memorializing them seems to help."
There is more than a similarity of purpose, said 1st Sgt. Travis DeBarr, assigned to Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. KIA bracelets look nearly identical to those that recognize POW/MIA.
"There is no difference between the three except the writing on the bracelet," DeBarr said. "It is not like they are going out to get a pink bracelet. As long as it meets the standards of the bracelets, it should be no different. I have seen watches that are more extravagant."
Whether they're worn on base or off, the bracelets add honor to the uniform, Cavanaugh said. Out on the town, they are conversation starters that help tell the Marine Corps' story with people who might otherwise know little about the sacrifice made by this generation's troops.
"They know that the Marine wearing it has lost someone close to him, and it makes the Marine and the uniform that much more respected and revered," she said.
Moreover, "it blends in almost as well as a normal black wristwatch would," she said. "It's not eccentric or obnoxious. It does not take away from the history of our uniforms or the integrity of our uniforms."
Worse, Marines say, enforcement is spotty. DeBarr, who has led lectures about Marine Corps uniforms at the Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., said KIA bracelets should be allowed. But until they are authorized, he won't put it back on while he's in uniform.
"This is not to disrespect or dishonor the fallen. It is an order and a regulation and as Marines, we have to follow orders and regulations," he said. "A simple recommendation to the Marine Corps Uniform Board to authorize these bracelets would fix this."
DeBarr said he has addressed his concerns with officials on the uniform board. At the time, he was seeking clarification on existing policy and took the opportunity to express his view that KIA bracelets should be OK.
The uniform board provides guidance to units by answering queries on a case-by-case basis, Hamby said. Individual units are obligated to enforce the policy, she said.
DeBarr has attempted to enforce the regulations but said it's difficult because the bracelets are so widely worn.
"It kind of handcuffs you to make a correction when everybody is doing it," he said. "The senior leaders are doing it. How can I tell a lance corporal not to do it when they are doing it? As long as it meets the width requirement and looks like an MIA/POW bracelet, people usually don't ask and just leave it alone."
The uniform board's website states that MIA/POW bracelets must be less than a half-inch wide. They are usually black, silver or red.
Enforcement is a nonissue in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, a Reserve unit in Milwaukee, said Cpl. Tony Grandprey, an 0311 rifleman. He first saw the bracelets on his drill instructors at boot camp.
Since then, their popularity seems to have grown, he said, noting they are worn by a lot of people in his hometown. His bears the name of Army Pfc. Jake Gassen, a medic who was killed in November 2010 in Afghanistan after an Afghan police officer turned on him and five others.
About a year ago, Grandprey heard rumors that KIA bracelets weren't allowed, but his command never said a word about it. In fact, a first sergeant told the unit in formation that if he wore one, his Marines could wear one, Grandprey said.
As long, as the bracelets aren't flashy, Grandprey said he doesn't see a problem.
"It should be just like with sunglasses — we can't wear anything pink or purple," he said.
At Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, the issue came up a few weeks ago, said Lance Cpl. Glenn Payne, a combat cameraman assigned to III Marine Expeditionary Force. His first sergeant posted a notice on the bulletin board saying "if you wear a KIA bracelet, please stop immediately," he said.
It worked. He and most Marines in his unit stopped because they follow regulations, he said. But a few resisted, Payne said, and the duty noncommissioned officer told them to take theirs off.
"After I get out, I'm going to wear mine forever," he said.
Payne's bracelet carries the name of Pfc. Vincent Gammone, a close friend from 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, who was gunned down last year in Afghanistan. A Taliban prisoner broke out of an Afghan-run detention center at 1/2's battalion headquarters, snatched an AK47 from an Afghan police officer and opened fire on the compound. Payne also has a bracelet that bears the name of Lance Cpl. Ralph Fabbri, a fellow combat cameraman attached to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. He was killed by small-arms fire on patrol in Afghanistan.
At Camp Lejeune, N.C., Cpl. Jack Lipoff, a rifleman with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said his unit banned the bracelets after returning from a rough deployment to Afghanistan between January and August 2010.
"It wasn't harshly enforced. Nobody got screamed at the way you would if you had your hands in your pockets, but it was still something that you couldn't wear," Lipoff said. "A lot of people were pretty offended by that since we had just lost some guys. We took a lot of casualties."
Many Marines in his unit kept wearing them anyway, he said. It helps to deal with the gravity of war.
"It is probably one of the most pivotal things ever to happen in your life — going to combat — and not everyone came back from it. And you won't forget them," he said. "You want other people to understand they mean a lot to you. A huge part of being a Marine is also remembering people who don't survive combat."
Tattoos as an alternative
Some Marines argue that the bracelets are an option for those who don't want to get tattoos, which the Corps has clamped down on, as well, in recent years. Cpl. Dener Echeverria, who's assigned to Combat Logistics Company 36 at MCAS Iwakuni, considers the bracelets a fair alternative to ink. For now, he is following regulations, but he doesn't like it.
"I have had three friends killed in action during Operation Iraq Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom," Echeverria said. "Because I follow [Marine Corps orders], I will have to wait until I depart the armed forces to remember my fallen brothers. I believe that is wrong, because when we as Marines die, we continue to live through the Marine Corps. As long as I keep marching forward, no one has the right to tell me how I should remember my brothers."
Echeverria keeps his bracelet for Sgt. Adan Gonzales Jr., killed Aug. 7 in Afghanistan. Gonzales was his fire team leader in Iraq, when Echeverria was a private first class.
"A lot of how I am as a leader today is because of the way he trained and motivated me," he said. Echeverria removed his bracelet, but at other commands, Marines have managed to hold onto theirs even after being told to ditch them. Among them is Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Sergio Sanchez, who is assigned to the naval hospital at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. During a previous assignment with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, Sanchez was asked to remove the bracelet he wears for Cpl. Mark Goyet, who was killed in Afghanistan in June.
"One of the sergeants in my company said it wasn't authorized and asked me to take it off," he recalled. "I kind of got upset and said something — stuff that I should not have said — but afterwards I still did not take it off."
At least six Marines he knows also continue to wear bracelets with Goyet's name, he said. And at the hospital, even his command master chief wears a silver KIA bracelet.
"If they make me take it off, I'll probably just get it tattooed on my wrist," Sanchez said. "That is how adamant I am about making sure my buddy's honor will live in my heart, my spirit and my mind — forever."