God only knows why, but the “contractor beard” is one of the top accessories that a new security contractor simply must have, coming in second only to the 5.11 tuxedo. Facial hair is one of the more obvious things that distinguishes a civilian from a soldier, and it’s no surprise that beards can be a sore point, especially with contractors working as embedded advisors. Despite a constant threat of death from roadside bombs and indirect fire when working in a war zone, it’s the little things like a couple of whiskers going wild and free that can turn into a really touchy subject. That’s why today I’d like to take a couple of minutes to examine the more common arguments for (and against) letting your beard go shagadelic.
Pro-Beard Argument #1: “A beard is essential if you want to blend in with the natives.”
Sorry, but I’ve got to throw the penalty flag on this one. Unless you speak fluent Arabic and squat when you use the toilet, no one’s mistaking a white boy in an armored Suburban for a Sunni from Fallujah. Besides, you’ve got to grow your scruff to ZZ-top length if you want to cover up that “Pork-Eating Crusader” morale patch you’ve got pinned to your body armor.
Pro-Beard Argument #2: “A beard makes me look seasoned, like I’ve been there and done that.”
Okay, this one is plausible, assuming you keep your mouth shut. If someone mentions that they took small arms fire on Route Irish and you’re the jackass who pulls out a Lonely Planet guide for Dublin, there’s no Fu Manchu in the world that can keep you from looking like a rookie. This argument has a shred of merit but in my experience, the guys who really have been there and done that aren’t really too concerned with how seasoned they look.
Pro-Beard Argument #3: “I grew a beard to stand out a little from the military guys I’m embedded with. When we go out on patrol, I don’t want to be mistaken for a soldier and become a target.”
Sorry, that one’s a no-go. If you’re carrying a weapon, any sniper is going to see you as fair game no matter how much of a Bin Laden shag you’re rocking. It’s actually a little more likely that he’ll think you’re some high-value target like a Special Forces hero or a CIA spook, and aim for you first.
Okay, so sporting a beard might not be all it’s cracked up to be. But let’s take a quick look at the other side of the story.
Clean Shaven Argument #1: “I wear ACUs when I’m on patrol so I can blend in with the soldiers. Growing a beard would make me stand out too much.”
As much as I hate to do it, I’ve got to call BS on the other side of the coin too, but only in the interests of fairness. Any embedded contractor is going to be at least 10 or 20 years older than the E-4 mafia he’s walking with, and he’s probably going to be the one with the biggest gut. There’s a lot of little details that mark you as different from everyone else, like having no tapes for your rank or mounting different equipment on your weapon. To an attentive observer, these things can be as much of a giveaway as a pair of muttonchop sideburns.
Clean Shaven Argument #2: “Beards just look unprofessional. They don’t fit in with a military appearance.”
Um…maybe, but if you’re going to use an argument like that then you’ve got to take it all the way. Fat tubs of lard look pretty unprofessional too, but the military lets a lot of them slide by. Most of us can agree that being out of shape can cost the lives of you or your buddies, but I’ve never heard of people actually dying for lack of shaving.
Clean Shaven Argument #3: “Full beards are prohibited by our company policy.”
As stupid as it sounds, this is probably the best argument there is for choosing to go clean shaven. Remember, the operations of every contract are driven by the needs of the customer and it usually comes down to giving them what they want. If your goal is to work on a high-speed PSD team, you’ve got to remember that the only people who can afford your services are some pretty high-profile folks. These principals are used to being photographed constantly, and no million-dollar a year CEO wants his photo taken standing next to a greasy dude that looks like Wolverine!
Look guys (ladies, I don’t mean to sound sexist by leaving you out but no one really cares whether you shave your legs or not), I can’t point fingers too much here. Yes, I did the whole contractor beard thing, and got yelled at more than once for violating the company’s grooming policy. It was pretty neat to go around feeling like a pirate, but I can testify that growing a beard doesn’t give you any super powers or anything. The only change you might notice is that the active duty military guys will shoot you resentful looks in the chow hall as they count down the days until their own separation date.
My advice: If you want to use your time overseas to grow a beard then have at it, dude. Manscaping yourself is a fun way to kill a couple extra minutes every day, and you may not have the opportunity to grow it out again if you plan on going back to a day job with a uniform. But the minute one of your bosses tells you to trim your follicles back, just do it, and try not to argue about it.
Some companies have a “goatees only” rule, but it’s pretty easy to slide by with a full growth if you make an effort to keep yourself looking clean and trim. No one will bother saying anything to you, if only because it’s hard to be critical of a guy who looks like Chuck Norris.