Col. (later Brig. Gen.) Robin Olds, a World War II and Vietnam-era fighter ace, was legendary for his mustache grown in defiance of military regulations. He inspired the Air Force tradition of Mustache March. (Air Force)
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Mustache March is here. And this year, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has issued a challenge to all men in the service.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had an all-in Mustache March, have we?” Welsh said during his Feb. 20 address to the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium. “I’m putting the smackdown on you guys. Air Force-wide Mustache March, MAJCOM competitions.”
Mustache March is an Air Force tradition that dates back to the Vietnam War. The legendary triple-ace fighter pilot Brig. Gen. Robin Olds sported an equally legendary mustache during that war — extravagantly waxed, grown in flagrant defiance of military regulations, and said to be “bulletproof.” Olds, who was a colonel while serving in Vietnam, was loved by his men and inspired them to grow out their facial hair.
Over the years, some commands have — officially or unofficially — held contests during March to see who could grow the best mustache as a morale-boosting exercise. But until now, Welsh said, there hasn’t been an Air Force-wide event.
Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Megan Schafer said that Air Force headquarters isn’t putting together a formal contest and said Welsh was throwing out a challenge to major commands.
But while the details of this competition are vague, Welsh suggested the service intends to pick at least one winner. After Air Force leaders have chosen the winning soup strainer, he said, “I’ll figure out a way to honor him.”
Welsh prefaced his challenge by showing two humorously doctored photos of himself — one with a regular mustache and another with an outrageously drooping ’stache. But airmen shouldn’t even dream of resorting to such Photoshop chicanery, he said.
“We’ll check the imagery, to make sure it hasn’t been doctored,” he said.
In the past, commands have set their own competition rules. For example, the 387th Air Expeditionary Group in Southwest Asia said in a 2009 release that it judged participating airmen in four categories — the Chester, for creepiest-looking mustache; the Celebrity, for the mustache that best made an airman resemble someone famous; the Superstache, for the airman with the “most boisterous and out-of-control ’stache;” and the Peach Fuzz, for an airman who tried “with all their heart, but really didn’t have any growth.”
While a mustache competition is, by its nature, a guy’s contest, Welsh said that “the women in our Air Force have a critical role to play here.”
“Their job is to ridicule us nonstop about the idiotic look that these mustaches will have on most of us, as we try to look like Tom Selleck and end up looking like a three-haired mole,” he said. “Fight’s on.”
A Feb. 21 post on Mustache March on Air Force Times’ Flightlines blog sparked a massive, multipronged debate on whether the contest is a harmless and fun morale booster, or unprofessional and sexist.
“I am appalled by such a sexist event by the CSAF,” a commenter identifying herself as retired Col. Margaret MacMackin said on the Flightlines blog. “Supporting the Mustache March which is not total force but only aimed at his male ‘Airman’ demonstrates his real feelings toward females.”
Another commenter thought the contest sends the wrong message to airmen about discipline.
“I wish I didn’t know the history [behind Mustache March], because now I don’t see how any leader could support or encourage this,” a commenter called Jimmy said. “A celebration of a ‘bulletproof’ officer openly violating the policy the rank & file are expected to follow. Should we idolize Olds for his breaking rules? I challenge leaders to justify ... why we can find nothing better to rally behind than not following legal orders.”
Others felt that an officially sanctioned mustache competition is contrary to the point of Olds’ facial hair, which was his way of thumbing his nose at the brass.
“The original Mustache March was predicated on a certain level of non-conformity, in the spirit of Robin Olds,” a commenter called Nonconformist said. “It would seem now that growing a mustache is the ultimate in conforming to ‘the system.’ If you really want to celebrate the spirit, then paradoxically, you should not grow a mustache.”
But manyairmen on the blog cheered Welsh for trying to build esprit de corps and lift airmen’s spirits during tough times, and called naysayers “morale snipers.”
“Folks need to stop overthinking this,” a commenter called Old Crew Dawg said. “He’s promoting a morale building event that celebrates a great USAF fighter pilot. Anything wrong with that? Relax, people.”
Schafer said that even with the competition, regulations governing facial hair will remain in effect during March. AFI 36-2903, Section 184.108.40.206 says that male airmen may have mustaches as long as they are conservative, do not extend downward below the lip line of the upper lip, or sideways beyond both corners of the mouth.
That is certain to disappoint some airmen, who were hoping relaxed standards would allow them to better emulate Olds.
Unless airmen are allowed to grow mustaches past the corners of their lips, said a commenter named Alex, “those who can even grow a Tom Selleck end up looking like Adolf Hitler ... and what image does that bring to the public’s eye?”