Artillery tradition leaves new platoon leaders hatless
May 27, 2011
YAKIMA TRAINING CENTER, Wash. - When 2nd Lt. Shannon McDonnell assumed her new position as a platoon leader and fire direction officer with 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, nothing was official.
It wasn’t until she’d had four of her patrol caps taped to the backs of rockets and blown to pieces that she was certifiably a member of the team.
Then, McDonnell, who is still brand new to the artillery career field, could truly say she’s been welcomed.
Although it might appear a cruel and undeserved hail to the outside eye, Shannon sees it as more of an honor. After all, it’s tradition.
“It was kind of like my initiation into the platoon,” said the new leader "both authoritatively and officially" of 2nd Platoon, Battery B, 5-3 FA Bn., and also the only female fire direction officer for the battalion, a Joint Base Lewis-McChord asset that falls under 17th Fires Brigade.
Her patrol caps were destroyed by her fire direction control section May 23 during a field exercise at Yakima Training Center in Central Washington State that tasked them with providing artillery support for 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, in the brigade’s three-week YTC rotation.
Now, she has a collection of torn, tattered caps, but what’s more is the tangible memory she has of a custom literally decades in the making. The rite of passage that accompanies a fire direction officer’s first live shoot with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket system, the unit’s signature big gun.
“You get a new lieutenant, and it’s only tradition to shoot their patrol cap,” said Sgt. 1st Class Terry Biddle, platoon sergeant for 2nd Platoon, Battery B, 5-3 FA Bn.
Biddle explained that on a new second lieutenant’s first fire with the rocket system, his or her patrol cap is stolen and taped to the back plate of one of the rockets to be fired. As the rocket leaves, the back blast destroys the cap. Finally, after the shoot is finished, someone from the lieutenant’s crew retrieves the headgear, has it signed by each member of the team and returns it to the lieutenant.
He said it’s a practice unique to the community of Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, like the HIMAR, where something can actually be attached to the backs of rounds.
“It’s fun for the officers, and it’s kind of a welcoming to the team,” said Biddle, who’s been an artilleryman for 17 years and has never been with a unit that didn’t uphold the tradition.
Still, he says, he has no idea where it came from. He just remembers his first exposure to it as a private.
He was in the field, he said, when he saw a truck pass by with a patrol cap taped to the back of one of the rockets.
“Someone had written on it ‘sir, here goes your headgear,’” he said. “Later that day, the commander had the (destroyed) hat on his head, and he was happy and smoking a cigar.”
Now, 16 years later, Biddle has led the assault in swiping and blowing up the headgear of nearly 20 different officers.
It might seem hard to grasp why anyone would be so thrilled to have their personal property pilfered and then obliterated, but Capt. Adam Antonino, Biddle’s battery commander, understands it fully.
“It builds unit cohesion,” he said. “It’s not like someone’s stealing and destroying your property against your own will.”
“Every MLRS unit in the Army does it, so you can’t really complain about tradition,” he added.
Antonino just arrived to the battery in August. That’s also when he officially entered the world of Multiple Launch Rocket Systems like the HIMAR.
The tradition struck him just three days before it found its way to McDonnell.
“My patrol cap went missing May 20 and was returned to me in poor condition May 22,” he said with subtle comical undertones and a smirk across his face of the custom that also follows officers through their careers.
Antonino said that as an officer makes it to the next rank, his or her new patrol cap, still basking in its “newly-promoted” luster, is blasted into the ground.
Even after assuming command of the battery, some members of one of Antonino’s FDC teams took it upon themselves to properly welcome him nine months later.
His reaction to the assault on his head attire is anything but spiteful.
“It’s flattering,” he said. “I would be more concerned if on my first shoot my hat wasn’t stolen and destroyed.”
“I can always afford a new patrol cap,” he added.