Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

glass of whiskey

The military has its own culture. I quickly learned that like any self-respecting culture, it has its own language. Upon first hearing it, you may wonder, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?” Which, of course, stands for the letters “W-T-F” in the Nato Phonetic Alphabet. I found that understanding this language meant embracing acronyms. They are everywhere in the military, like the linguistic version of camouflage. After all, it was the U.S. Army that gave the world ASAP. Which is how we all know when things are due at the office.

Nato Phonetic Alphabet

Nato Phonetic Alphabet

Not every acronym is issued by the Dept. of Defense. Humor happens. All the troops I’ve “met” have made me laugh at one point or another. Like when I found out that BCG = Birth Control Glasses. These are the standard-issue eyeglasses which are considered to be so unstylish that they make the wearer attractive to no one.

I asked one of my soldiers, Col. Mike, to help me become more fluent. So he described his deployment (Nato phonetically speaking) as: Sierra Hotel which means in this case, Sh*t Hot. Then he gave me a sample paragraph. If you are very sensitive, I should warn you that “f-bombs” are dropped in combat and censored ones in the following section.

Acronyms in action

Below is a sample followed by the translation.

When I was in the AOR, I was a CA with NTM-A, CSTC-A working at the MOI in Kabul advising the ANP as part of the ANSF. We worked to establish LOCs and LOLS by building a RSC in each region and a PSP in each province. I wasn’t the HMFIC just a FNG but it didn’t take much of a SWAG to figure that TARFU! But I figured since I was already there, FIDO and do the best I can. BOHICA some things never change!

AOR– Area Of Responsibility (Afghanistan) ; CA– Combat Advisor; NTM-A – NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan; CSTC-A– Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan; MOI-Ministry Of Interior; ANP– Afghan National Police; ANSF– Afghan National Security Forces; LOC– Lines Of Communication; LOLS– Lines Of Logistics Support; RSC– Regional Support Center; PSP– Provincial Supply Point; HMFIC- Head Mother F—er In Charge; FNG– F—ing New Guy; SWAG– Scientific Wild A– Guess; TARFU– Things Are Really F—ed Up; FIDO– F— It, Drive On; BOHICA– Bend Over Here It Comes Again

For pen pals

Luckily, how troops speak is not how they write to civilian pen pals. For me, language questions have fallen into two areas. The first is their deployed addresses, which often resemble bad Scrabble hands. The other is when acronyms or terms sneak into the conversation. That’s how I learned things like DFAC = dining facility (pronounced D-FAK.) and that v/r at the end of a letter means “very respectfully.”  Below are a few of my favorites.

Soup sandwich = someone or something that is as useless or difficult as a soup sandwich.

Off Base Commander = spouse or significant other.

FM = f–ing magic. As in, “it runs on FM.” Used when the real answer is too long or difficult for the questioner to understand and would be a waste of time to explain.

As with most languages, there are dialects. I read a helpful post from my friends at Buoyed Up about some Navy terms. I was trying to find master lists for the all the branches, but only found partial ones. And quite a few slang sites. However, there is a Joint Forces dictionary you can search. Or read. But as is usually the case, it’s easier to learn when you converse with a real person.

A few words about transition

After years of saying, “roger that” when someone tells you something, is it hard to go back to saying “okay” or “I understand?” Or to switch from “Bravo Zulu” back to “well done?” Does it take effort to lose the rhythm and cadence of short direct bursts when sharing something important?  When our troops go back to being civilians, the transition is physical, emotional, mental, financial…I wondered if verbal was also on the transitional to-do list.

So I asked one of my soldiers how he felt. He had left the Army in ’03 when he was wounded and came back in ’08 when he got his medical waivers. During his time out, he had a lot to deal with. But he said one of the hardest parts was learning how to talk to civilians again. “My mouth almost got me in trouble because I was used to speaking a certain way.” I’m not sure if all troops find it as challenging. But if they do, I hope they also find civilians who can speak from the heart and say, “I’ve got your 6.” Which means, of course, “I’ve got your back.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

26 thoughts on “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

  1. 🙂 That reminds me of the story in which an RDC asked a SR to swab the mess deck. He specifically mentioned use of bulkhead remover. Took the SR a while to understand that it was FM to find bulkhead remover.

  2. The soldier to civilian language difference is the cause of many difficult conversations when Kevin gets home from deployments. Especially because talking to a woman is so much different than the way he is use to talking to his “guys”. 🙂

  3. I’ve often wondered about all the acronyms. Thanks for shedding some light on it from multiple angles. With the recent news about tuition and the military this is very timely. I can only imagine the acronyms flying today!

    • Thanks for reading Kami! And yes, taking away tuition assistance is a sore point. I’m sure you’re right about the acronym usage today! Hopefully Congress will get their act together on this and many areas.

  4. One of my favorites that I wish more civilians new about is the Blue Falcon or BF = Buddy F*cker. In the Army you don’t even have to say “blue falcon” you can just get away with “cacaw-cacaw”.

    I’d been out of active duty for about a year when someone sent an email talking about differences between civilian and military life and it mentioned something about “kiwi” meaning a fruit or slang for someone from NZ. I probably spent five minutes trying to remember what the military meaning was. Duh! Shoe polish.

    • If I heard someone randomly “cacaw-cacaw-ing” on a city street or crowded airport, I would laugh. Now if I see they have a military haircut, I will laugh harder. Thank you for adding to today’s language lesson! And that is funny how kiwi temporarily escaped your memory. I would’ve thought that one was unforgettable 🙂

  5. Thanks Gina, this is awesome as usual. I know as an Army wife I have had to ask for translations several times. I think it is worse with him in the JAG core, now I get leagal and Army together!

    • Thanks Meghan! And he’s speaking legal AND Army??? I am now inventing and awarding you the HCC. HCC= Homefront Communication Commendation- given to family members who show exceptional endurance and success breaking through military-induced language barriers. And for keeping their Serviceman or woman connected to and fluent in Civilian thus helping ensure and enable future transitional success.

      Since I made it up, there’s no actual medal or certificate suitable for framing. However, it does have FB post potential if you copy and paste. Since you are the first recipient, please enjoy the trail-blazer status that it sure to come with it!

  6. That’s pretty cool, Gina.However I was hoping though based on the title and picture, that WTF was an awesome military recipe for a good alcoholic beverage 🙂

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