It's Saturday and you're driving down the street. You see them in plate carriers waving flags. Your heart starts beating a little faster and the curiosity sets in. You ask yourself, 'What the f*ck are all these half-naked people doing?'. Well, the answer is quite simple if you think about it. But first, you need some context.
Naked and Afraid
For many military members and veterans, it starts at the Military Entrance Processing Station, or MEPS. As part of MEPS, we are asked to strip down to our underwear and "duck walk" (that's the official term) around the room so doctors can analyze us for joint issues or whatever. Maybe it's just for their own enjoyment. Nonetheless, in that moment, we met some people for the first time while walking around like a duck in our underwear. Can you imagine the awkwardness?
Image credit https://officercandidatesschool.com/2014/09/15/advice-candidate-meps/
Chances are, the fellow recruits we meet at MEPS are not the ones we go on to serve with. It's just the first moment where we felt vulnerable and uncomfortable. Fast forward to arriving at boot camp, basic training, or whatever the respective branch calls it. If anybody tells you they weren't feeling vulnerable or anxious when the door to the bus opened and the yelling started, they are lying. For the vast majority, this is our first time away from what makes us comfortable. Whether it's close friends, family, or a dog, the thing in your life you found comfort in is not there. Despite being with 50+ other people, at first, you feel alone.
Image credit https://www.mcrdsd.marines.mil/About/The-Mission-We-Make-Marines/
The first 24-48 hours there is designed to be chaotic, disorientating, and stressful. At some point during this time, there is a need to shower. In the Air Force in 2011, this first shower came on the day we handed over our civilian clothes in exchange for our uniforms and, for males, had our heads shaved. It was anything but a "shower". All 50 or so of us crammed naked into the latrine, being yelled at the whole time, while 10-15 people at a time got 60 seconds to share six or eight shower heads. I remember the shower heads either being scolding hot or ice cold. Either way, it forced you to only stand under the water for a second before you had to step back and bump into another naked person behind or beside you. Again, this period of time is when recruits, or trainees as the Air Force called us, feel the most vulnerable and uncomfortable. Are you catching on to the significance of this feeling?
Isolated and Alone
As you probably know, military members and veterans often use humor to cope with stressful or traumatic situations or these instances where we are uncomfortable and vulnerable. These situations and instances are not limited to being naked; this is just a metaphor. There are situations and experiences that are unique to the military that only other military members and veterans can relate with. We are able to joke about it to make each other laugh as a way to heal. The problem is, when veterans separate the military, they often feel alone and isolated because civilian friends, family, and new co-workers just can't fill that void. We no longer have people who understand and relate to this in our daily lives. It's uncomfortable to open up and talk about our experiences with others as it is, but when the people in our lives can't relate to what we have been through, we feel isolated and alone. For some, this leads to suicide. That's where Irreverent Warriors comes in.
The Silkies Hike
Irreverent Warriors, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) organization that was started by Donny O'Malley back in 2015. What started as a 22km ruck, carrying 22kg of weight, to raise awareness for the 22 a day quickly turned into a place where veterans could regain that sense of camaraderie and build a network of peers who could relate to each other. A place for suicide prevention rather than awareness. That place is called a Silkies Hike.
Image credit IW-Atlantic Beach
Silkies, or Ranger Panties as others may refer to them, are the PT shorts of the Marines. They are short, tight, and leave nothing to the imagination. In public, it can be uncomfortable to wear them. Wearing Silkies is a way to recreate that discomfort of being naked (remember the shower story?), and according to O'Malley, this is why Silkies are worn at hikes. When a veteran or military member shows up to a Silkies Hike, especially a first-time hiker, they aren't alone in this feeling. They are with a group of brothers and sisters who are also feeling uncomfortable. Vulnerable. So, what do we do? We laugh. And once the laughter makes us feel comfortable, we talk. And when we talk, we relate. We find friends who have felt the same pain, seen the same tragedy, or experienced the same trauma. We find out we're not alone. What makes IW great is it doesn't just stop when the hike is over. Each location has a Facebook Group as a way of staying in contact with others from the hike. But it's more than that; it's a network of peers we can talk to when we need it and we know they can relate our struggle. It's a judgement-free place where any veteran can connect with other veterans. To date, over 50,000 veterans have participated in Silkies Hikes across the world, with almost 100 Hikes scheduled for 2022 alone.
Image Credit Irreverent Warriors
So, the next time you're driving through town on a Saturday and you see a group of half-naked people wearing plate carriers, carrying flags, and most importantly, laughing, cheer them on. Honk and wave. It's just a group of veterans and military members helping each other heal. Helping each other live.
22 Sierra Coffee Co.™ is a proud partner and national sponsor of Irreverent Warriors. For every Dark Humor product sold on our site, we donate $2 to IW. The mission of IW is to bring veterans together using humor and camaraderie to improve mental health and prevent veteran suicide. To learn more about Irreverent Warriors and ways to directly support their mission, visit www.irreverentwarriors.com.