The Uniform

Sonner Kehrt
Sonner Kehrt
Photo courtesy of the author

My father pulled a duffel bag down from the attic one Saturday morning when I was a kid. Inside was a Navy flight suit, olive green and a little musty. It was the first uniform I ever put on. I wore it for Halloween, and the extra fabric pooled around my ankles. His steel-toed flight boots were too big and too heavy for me to walk in, so I wore hiking boots instead. In one hand, I held my trick-or-treat bag, and in the other I held the flight helmet, the tube from its attached oxygen mask dangling down by my feet.

When we came back home that night, I stalled as my brother and sister took off their costumes, trying to keep the uniform on for as long as I could. That year, I wore the shiny green flight jacket to my fourth-grade class almost every day. At home, alone in my room, I would zip up the worn fabric of the flight suit and stare at myself in the mirror. When I wore it, I didn’t feel like a kid in a costume. The material was soft and strong beneath my fingertips, and putting it on made my body feel like it was humming with a sort of power that was absent in the rest of my life. I felt like I was more than myself and that the things I could do in uniform were bigger and mattered more than the things I could do out of it. My father’s last name—my last name—on the nametag made me feel like the uniform was mine, and the strength I felt wearing it made me feel like it should be. From the moment I first put it on, there was no other future for me. I knew I would join the military.

The uniform shop at the Coast Guard Academy was in the basement, down a dank hallway where the Connecticut summer humidity creeped in and the poorly vented nearby laundry room made the air feel heavy. I heard that to get posted at the uniform shop, measuring inseams and chest circumferences of sweaty cadet bodies, you had to have screwed something up pretty badly. The commander there was rumored to have crashed a helicopter.

It seemed like we were down in the uniform shop almost every week during the boot camp summer that kicked off our four years at the Academy. There were more issued uniforms than I had ever imagined. There were gray T-shirts with our name stamped on the left chest for PT and the gym, blue T-shirts for sleeping. There were high-waisted black pants for ceremonial drill with a white jacket for spring drills, a black jacket for fall. There were Dinner Dress Blues and Dinner Dress Whites, Service Dress Blue Alphas and Service Dress Blue Bravos. There were Winter Dress Blues and Operational Dress Uniforms and Tropical Blue Longs. There were hats—combination, garrison, operational ball cap—and coats—foul weather parka, windbreaker, trench coat, bridge coat—and thin black socks for dress shoes and thick black ones for operational boots and white undershirts and blue undershirts and Wooley Pulley sweaters. 

The uniforms fit—everything was tailored to my body. There was no extra fabric around my ankles. The last name on my chest was the same last name that was on the flight jacket I wore to fourth grade, but this time, it was there because it was my name. When I caught a glance of myself in the mirror, I saw the woman I felt I could be when I wore my father’s flight suit. My arms were tanned and strong; my blond hair was swept back into a bun at my neck. The crisp, blue uniform shirt was pulled long against my flat stomach. The row of buttons that ran down the shirt’s center lined up with my brass belt buckle, which in turn aligned with the fly of my pants. Above my left breast pocket was a growing row of colored ribbons. I looked strong and sure and like I belonged.

The first time I wore my uniform out in public, the only thing I could think about was going to Ruby Tuesday and getting some chicken and french fries. It was toward the end of that first summer, and we hadn’t left the Academy since we had reported in. We’d spent weeks marching and running and memorizing ranks and long lists of important dates in Coast Guard history, and at first, I didn’t stop to think about the fact that it was the first time I was going out as a member of the military. I just wanted to figure out how to get the most out of a brief gasp of freedom. 

Later though, finally sitting back in front of a grease-spotted plate, I began to notice the feeling of the uniform, and the way it shifted the gaze of others. The fabric was stiff and uncomfortable in the New England heat. I had to remember not to walk with my hands in my pockets, and to put on my hat when I went outside, and to take it off again if I had something to eat or drink. These were the rules, and I had to follow them, partly because I had been told to, but also because I worried that if I didn’t, people would see through the uniform, and I would be exposed for what I really was: just a girl eating fries at Ruby Tuesday. Everything I did in uniform seemed to matter more: the way I sat, the way I spoke, the microscopic drip of ketchup on my shirt.

A spot of ketchup could be catastrophic, because making a uniform shirt inspection-ready is a process. You have to wash it and iron it flat, and then you measure out the three precise creases that run down the back of the shirt and the two in the front that bisect the center of each breast pocket. You iron in each straight crease and then spray the shirt with a thick cloud of starch and hang it to dry. Later, when it’s stiff, you lay it out on a table and align the ribbons above the left pocket and the nametag above the right, and you push through their pins with a quick decisive pop. You take your shoulder boards, dark blue with golden stitching to indicate your rank, and brush off any lint and then clip them onto the shirt’s shoulder straps, and you hang the whole thing up again and maybe top it off with another spritz of starch.

If you can avoid ketchup and other calamities, it turns out it’s easier to just hang a shirt up and spray it with a little more starch each night than it is to get a new one ready to wear. As the summer turned to fall, and fall stretched into winter, my Academy classmates and I realized that with a clean undershirt, you can make a uniform shirt last a week, maybe even longer, before it starts to look dingy and limp enough that spray starch can no longer salvage it. So though my collar sat stiffly around my neck, inside, where it couldn’t be seen, there was a thin ring of grime, and tucked under my well-shined belt buckle, the hem of my shirt was spotted with stains. 

The more I wore it, the more I felt a disconnect between who I was and my body in uniform. Wearing my father’s uniform as a child, I felt wrapped in potential. But wearing my own uniform began to seem claustrophobic. The cloth was like a billboard: to those within the military, the uniform immediately announced where I fell in the hierarchy (not high) and the ribbons on my chest what I had accomplished (not much). But to those outside the military, the uniform made me something else. It was four years after 9/11, and people paid for my coffee. They held open the door. When I wore my black drill uniform, with the two rows of gold buttons down the front and the mandarin collar with anchor pins at the throat, and I marched shoulder to shoulder with a thousand other cadets on the parade field that defined the front landscape of the Academy, cars honked their support. When people saw me, they thanked me for my service. I hoped they couldn’t tell I was wearing the same uniform shirt for the fifth straight day.

And it wasn’t just the public that saw me differently when I was in uniform. The boys at the Academy had these little rhymes they’d sometimes say to each other, always within earshot of the women in our class: “If she wears blue, she’s not for you,” they’d say. “Does she shine brass? Don’t tap that ass.” They were joking, mostly, and they wanted to get a rise out of us. But the comments hinted at something that felt true: putting on the uniform was transformational. It’s the case for anyone, but as a woman, the transformation was starker. A man puts on a uniform, and he becomes more of a man, but when a woman puts on a uniform, she doesn’t become more of a woman. In civilian clothing, we were real women; in uniform, we were something slightly different, though it was hard to say exactly what. No matter what we looked like, or how we acted, the uniform became a prism through which our femininity was distorted. The stiff blue fabric became our first identity.

For me, at least, it was an identity that felt particularly confining. The uniform shirt wasn’t very breathable. It kept sweat thick on your body on hot summer days instead of letting it evaporate, and in the same way, it kept a truth trapped close to me, sitting on my skin, never permitted to escape. There were times at night, in my barracks room, after my roommates and I had shined our shoes for morning formation and had taken off our uniform shirts and carefully hung them up to preserve them for the next day, when we were just wearing our issued gym shorts and our dark blue T-shirts, when my body felt lighter and freer, and I thought about whispering to them the truth. But a girl in the class ahead of me had been discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for telling, and you could never tell who was the wrong person to tell, and so, like the policy said, I didn’t. It stayed concealed behind the neat creases and gusts of starch.

The uniform hid things about me. It hid my politics and my beliefs; it hid my discomfort about some of the work we did and the policies we supported, and it hid my skepticism about the way the nation I served acted. It hid my anger at the president, my commander-in-chief, to whom I ultimately answered, and who had led the country into a two-front war that I didn’t understand and didn’t believe was winnable. It hid—so deeply that it sometimes felt hidden even from me—my worry that, if it came to it, I wasn’t sure I would lay down my life for my country as I had sworn to do. 

At the Academy, we didn’t sleep under the covers. Making a bed that would meet inspection standards took too much time in the morning, so instead we made our beds just once a semester, pulling the blanket completely taught and fastening it under the mattress with shirt stays, elastic bands with metal clips at either end that we usually wore to connect our shirts to our socks and ensure a crisply tucked uniform. At night, we lay on the made bed and partially unfolded the other blanket, the one creased into ninths at the foot of the bed with the Academy seal centered in the ninth that showed. Usually I unfolded it just enough to barely cover me, so that in the morning it took only two folds to put it back in its place.

I woke up in my perfectly made bed one morning in December thinking about my uniform. That first long year, we had to wear our uniform anywhere we went within a hundred miles of the Academy, and we seldom had enough free time to get that far from school. But this morning, this first morning of winter break, I would cross that sacred line.

If you’re heading southwest on I-95, it’s one hundred miles from the Coast Guard Academy campus in New London, Connecticut, to just across the New York border. On that first morning of winter break, one hundred miles from the Academy, I made my parents pull over to the first gas station we saw. In a cramped restroom stall, I unfastened the small white buttons of my uniform shirt. I unclipped my shirt stays and took off the shirt, stiff with starch and a little heavier on the right side where my nametag was pinned. I pulled off my white V-neck undershirt with my last name printed in Sharpie on the hem and undid the polished brass buckle on my belt, letting the heavy wool pants fall to my ankles. I stepped out of them, and I stepped out of my neatly shined shoes. Then I pulled on a pair of jeans and a hoodie and I felt like my body was my own.

I thought about that moment when I took off my uniform for the last time. It was a hot summer day, nearly nine years later. I’d spent four years at the Academy, and the required five years afterward serving as an officer. By then, I’d worn so many different uniforms: Full Dress Whites when I graduated from the Academy, Service Dress Blue Alphas for a funeral at Arlington. I’d worn camouflage life jackets while working in Africa and a heavy parka while patrolling in the Arctic. I’d learned to tie a tie for my Winter Dress Blues and run hundreds of miles in my blue and gray PT gear.

The day my discharge papers were signed, I was wearing the standard nonoperational work uniform: a light blue, button-up shirt and heavy dark blue pants. For the last time, I removed the uniform, carefully, like I did in that gas station restroom, holding each crisply ironed piece of material for a moment before letting it fall into a pile of blue on the floor. I kept on my undershirt, wearing it for the first time not as part of a uniform, but as a piece of clothing, and I pulled on a pair of running shorts. I stood still and let the sticky breeze coming in through the window lift the summer sweat from my skin.

Sonner Kehrt is a journalist in California. She’s a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and served for five years as a Coast Guard officer. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Verge, The Outline, Atlas Obscura, and other publications. She holds a master of arts from Georgetown University and a master of journalism from UC Berkeley.