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Army fatigues and boots. Photo: MivPiv/Getty Images

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I Miss My Army Uniform

We all looked the same, but that left me free to figure out who I really was.

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For five years I stopped looking in the mirror before work. There was no point in wasting time; I knew what I’d see. My face — naked, flaws and all — gray and green camouflaged blouse, cargo pants, and boots: the uniform of the US Army. But while I didn’t care what I looked like then, at an earlier time in my life, I had cared far more about my appearance.

I’d spent my high school mornings parked in front of the bathroom mirror applying blue mascara and straightening my blonde and fuchsia hair. My favorite outfit had consisted of a blue mini skirt, white tube socks, and hand-painted Chucks. I spent more hours than I care to tally in front of various mirrors before I let myself leave the house.

I wore my kaleidoscope wardrobe, makeup, and hair as a way of trying to display my personality on the outside. A lifelong introvert, I struggled to make the first attempts at friendliness. Neon blue eyeshadow and purple mascara seemed to put people at ease, or at the very least it sparked curiosity, which meant I didn’t have to do the work of initiating conversation. It helped that I genuinely adored bright colors, but it was more than that; it was my identity. It was also vanity: I didn’t dare leave the house without covering up pimples or outlining my eyes. I used my look for confidence and as a way to display my personality.

But that was stripped away my first week in college. I had applied for an Army ROTC scholarship not only as a way to pay for school, but also as a proud second-generation American who wanted to serve the country that took in all of my grandparents.

After arriving at Boston University, I lined up outside the Army ROTC detachment, a building on Bay State Road, with about 20 fellow new cadets. A salty, gray-haired master sergeant walked up and down the line, pointing out stubble to be shaved, hair to be shorn. For the most part, he avoided us females, of which there were only three. But the sergeant didn’t let anyone escape his scrutiny.

When he stalked to where I stood at sheepish attention, my first time in the position, he yelled.

“Cadet Semczuk!” he said. “Is that PINK hair I see?” He glowered at me. “What do you think this is? Fix it!”

That was my abrupt introduction to blending in. Pink hair, or any “unnatural” hair color, was against regulation.

After the sergeant released us, I sped to CVS to pick up some brown dye to cover my pink hair. That evening, while crouched over the sink in the shared bathroom, my new floormates poked in to see what I was doing. Already embarrassed, I tried to explain in as few words as possible what had happened.

At our next formation, the master sergeant sought me out. “Semczuk!” he bellowed. “You fix that hair?”

“Yes, sergeant,” I said.

“It’s master sergeant,” he corrected. He looked closer, inspecting my brown and blonde bun. “You can’t have two-toned hair. It’s against regulation.”

My stomach dropped. Over the next few days I scrambled to find a salon that could strip the color, which transformed my hair into Draco Malfoy’s, and finally make it all brunette with no pink, leaving the sergeant satisfied.

Hair aside, I was allowed to wear what I liked for the hours outside of ROTC, which was the majority of college. While I only wore a uniform a few hours a week, I began to see the advantages of dressing like your comrades. Looking dorky together, as new cadets still learning military bearing, took away a layer of otherness. We were in it together. It seemed to level the playing field in a way that stood in stark contrast to my fashion-conscious college.

Looking professional in uniform meant no makeup, and slick-backed, tied-up, tame hair — the opposite of how my younger self dressed. While I thought the rules would feel restrictive once I wore the uniform as my daily outfit, it was actually the opposite.

When I started full-time active duty service as an Army officer, I wore a uniform starting at 5:20 a.m. each morning. Before even a trip to the bathroom, I’d scramble to get dressed. Black spandex shorts to start, followed by voluminous physical training wind shorts that ballooned out to an inch above my knees. Next, a dingy sports bra followed by a gray cotton T-shirt with ARMY emblazoned in reflective type across the chest. I’d shove my shirt into the shorts — tucked in, by regulation — and strap my lemon yellow safety belt around my waist. Finishing touches of white above-the-ankle socks and sneakers. Hair twisted in a bun, double hair-ties, blonde as required to match my hair, and a sports watch from Walmart. I’d sprint out the door to my car, and I’d drive to post to make it to the first formation of the day.

As we waited for reveille, the 6:30 a.m. bugle call piped through outdoor speakers, we stood gray cotton shoulder to shoulder. We looked like a long line of Steve Urkels: shorts hiked to belly buttons, socks climbing up shins, and thick-rimmed glasses. We called those frames “birth control glasses” (BCGs for short). Wearing the same ill-fitting clothes and accessories — regardless of color, height, weight, or gender — seemed to make people friendlier. Jokes were frequent, people jostled neighbors in jest, and spontaneous conversation flowed. It was as if we’d all had a few drinks: The easy laughter, camaraderie, and openness that comes an hour or so into a house party. Maybe it was because we were all up before the sunrise, standing around sleep-deprived and giddy. But I had a different theory. Wearing a uniform eliminated a layer of shyness for me. It lent me power.

It wasn’t the most comfortable thing to wear. The physical training uniform didn’t wick sweat, leaving us all with dark splotches under the arms, around the neck, and on the back. We’d leave what we called “sweat angels” on the pavement after lying on our backs doing flutter kicks or sit-ups. Evidence of hard work and humid Kansas mornings, disappearing within an hour. What made us more at ease — rather than comfortable —was the lack of rank on the simple T-shirts. While you knew your unit’s soldiers, there was a level of anonymity that was welcome in the early morning hours.

After training, when I put on regular camouflage, what we called ACUs (the Army Combat Uniform), my status was visible. My name and rank was displayed across my chest — no hiding, no anonymity — but so was everyone else’s. Soldiers knew to address me as “ma’am” by the vertical bar on my chest displaying my lieutenant rank, and I knew how to address them, either by name or rank by the same coded system. Once you learned it, life was simplified. No fumbling for names, no uncertainty about what courtesies to show who; it was all in plain air.

Gone were the days of waiting for others to initiate conversation or hiding in introversion. I hadn’t realized serving as an Army officer would entail so much public speaking. In my first year of active duty, I briefed high-ranking officers and all-male units, taught classes to upwards of a hundred soldiers at a time, and directed formations when my commander was absent.

While not easy, especially as a naturally shy person, it seemed less intimidating than back when I spoke in front of college classmates for presentations. Maybe it was the “imagine the audience in their underwear” effect. When everyone looked the same, it was easier for me to remember we’re all similar. The panic to impress lessened.

But now I’m no longer in the military. After serving in the midwest and southwest and abroad, I moved to Brooklyn, and I work in Manhattan.

I’m surrounded by some of the most chic and trendy people in the nation, if not the world. And it’s hard to remember my appearance isn’t tied to power and personality. (Well, as a woman, I suppose it always will be, but internally, at least.) I feel the compulsion to cover my acne, smooth my hair, or find the perfect shoes starting to creep back. The panicky feeling of being seen without mascara — my eyes will look tiny! — has made its appearance after half a decade. Thankfully, I haven’t regressed to the peacock armor of my teenage years. But my wardrobe has morphed into its own uniform: grays, blacks, and browns. While it doesn’t give me the sense of ease my camouflage and boots did, I’m no longer as shy as I once was. I’ve realized you can’t use clothes as a substitute for showing your inner self. It may have taken me longer than most to realize that simple truth, but I’m grateful for the path I took to get there.

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