Of course professional vetbro Patch Baker’s epiphany—that everyone needs to capitalize the V in veteran—came while he was writing an opinion column for Entrepreneur magazine titled “Building a Business Is Just as Hard as Combat.” Baker, once a Marine, subsequently launched a Change.org petition arguing his case: Changing veterans into Veterans would “magnify the honor we show for the valor and sacrifice by regarding their role with full respect and honor for the title they hold,” a circular argument that sounds better in the original German, where all proper and common nouns are capitalized.
Not that Baker is lacking for titles. He is the president and CEO of Mobius Media Solutions, a partner in American Dream U, the chief marketing officer of Leatherback Gear LLC, and the CEO of JavaPresse Coffee Company. Baker describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” on his LinkedIn profile. When I was homeless and in and out of psych wards in the Bay Area after the war, I met a lot of self-described serial entrepreneurs.
Of course, Baker is also a mercenary. From 2010 to 2014, he worked overseas for Triple Canopy, a Panama Papers–connected Beltway bandit whose motto of “Assess, Avert, Achieve” attracted war contractors who were prone to possess, pervert, and deceive. This fact isn’t mentioned in any of his promotional material, though he’ll talk all day about once being a Marine. Figures. In 2017, after going all the way to the Supreme Court, Triple Canopy paid $2.6 million in settlement money to the federal government over allegations that the contractor sent guards who couldn’t pass a basic weapons qualification test to protect Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. This occurred during Baker’s time with the company—a whistleblower filed the complaint in 2011. Al Asad was and remains the second-largest American base in the country; you may remember it from the Iranian missiles that just landed there in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force dude. But the important thing is to think about the capitalization of the letter V in veteran.
Baker, like all MercMerch™ vetbro entrepreneurs in MAGAmerica2020™, deploys one of the strongest weapons in the veteran’s arsenal—shame—against others, the way the Air Force deployed Agent Orange in Vietnam, while somehow remaining immune himself to any of the weapon’s ill effects. It’s the audacity of dopes: The average pirate in the Gulf of Aden has more integrity than a guy who left the Marines, war unwon, to make more money killing people overseas for a private contractor before his next act—pulling the service-disabled veteran card to sell coffee and build his bro brand.
Patch, please hear this message from one service-disabled veteran small-business owner to another: It’s time to cut the shit, bud. We veterans have been fighting dumb brutal wars in the Middle East for almost 20 years, long enough that it’s lost any veneer of noble self-sacrifice. I understand having difficulty processing the fact that we were what Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler warned about: hired guns killing in heroin and oil country for the biggest gang on the block. It’s time to drive on with your life, Patch. We were all duped. There’s no shame in admitting that.
Not that shame is all bad. A shame-pact with a veteran friend helped me quit Twitter. The deal was this: The first to log onto that hellsite would have to wear a Grunt Style T-shirt to an event of the other’s choice. I envisioned my friend, an Air Force Academy lacrosse player turned Afghanistan infantry officer turned suburban outdoor dad, wearing a long-sleeve “This is My Killing Shirt” to a Pura Vida Reiki circle in Boulder, Colorado. God knows what broken-vetbro advertisement he envisioned me wearing, or where. Digital detox by threat of duress worked: Neither of us wound up having to fork over any money to Grunt Style, the oxymoronic label on every T-shirt sleeve of choice for AR-15-wielding wannabes in these United States. (“You do not have to be a veteran to wear Grunt Style,” the company’s website tells us, “but you do have to love freedom, bacon and whiskey. We provide more than just apparel, we bolster a lifestyle.”)
This is a good time to mention that I often look like I’m in that lifestyle. I do most of my clothes-shopping at Walmart and Goodwill but am currently wearing a gray T-shirt with images of an MK-19 grenade launcher and a TOW missile tube flanking the word “Destroyers,” which I got when I was an infantryman in the Army—it was a unit T-shirt. After 13 years of wash and wear, it is one of my most comfortable articles of clothing. In a Santa Fe hotel room last week, I slept under a well-worn woobie that kept me warm while lying in an ambush in Ghazni, Afghanistan. When I walked the dog up and down Cerillos in the freezing high-desert morning, I did so in the full Extended Cold Weather Clothing System suit I’d been issued at Fort Drum during a 2005 pre-deployment rapid-fielding initiative. Such “snivel gear” is the best; that shit is warm. It is my own singular grunt style. I don’t know that it instills pride as much as it feels comfortable.
“Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant,” Thomas Carlyle, the ornery unkempt Tory writer, wrote in 1831’s Sartor Resartus, a satirical novel that deals with philosophy and fashion. “Clothes, from the King’s mantle downwards, are emblematic, not of want only, but of a manifold cunning, victory over want.” What is the want, then, whose victory involves entering your email address to “Enlist and defeat ISIS” in the signup box for Gruntstyle.com product updates? What human need is satisfied by draping oneself in a 9 Line Apparel sweatshirt that says “Stomp my flag and I’ll stomp you”?
A nine-line is a form used by soldiers to radio in a request for a medical evacuation of your injured comrades. I know this because I carried one, laminated, in the shoulder pocket of my Army Combat Uniform when that was a requirement for my job. 9 Line Apparel, by contrast, is a clothing company whose Army veteran CEO has staked it out on Fox News Channel as the pro–war crimes brand, complete with an Eddie Gallagher line of shirts, which seems redundant, now that the pardoned corpse-desecrating SEAL runs Salty Frog, his own apparel company.
It’s odd to reflect on this brand name, 9 Line Apparel. A bad call on a nine-line medevac overseas means a person gets on the helicopter alive and leaves the helicopter dead; a bad call on a 9 Line T-shirt means wearing “Freedom Sleeves” from a company that describes itself as “Relentlessly Patriotic.”
“Sir, all I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work,” said Steve Martin’s Sergeant Bilko. In Martin’s 1996 movie adaptation, everything worked out for Bilko—an iconic, affably crooked motor-pool NCO who presciently kept a signed photograph of Donald Trump on his desk, sticking it to The Man in the peacetime Army. It seems to me that’s what today’s Milspec T-Shirt & Coffee Co.™-hawking ShamWow Guys of the big-V Veteran world want, too. In their way, they’re just following the example of big-fish veteran entrepreneurs: the retired generals and admirals who hang around defense-contractor boardrooms and the greenrooms of broadcast news studios.
I just want someone to acknowledge how absurd it all is that, in the next decade, an Air Force Academy sophomore named Vince Lombardi could—if he studies hard and has good eyesight—wind up flying a billion-dollar jet to drop a million-dollar bomb on a thousand-dollar target in America’s endless war on the Afghans, before coming back to a licensing deal with a veteran-owned apparel company. But like that kid’s same-named great-granddad said, long ago, winning is the only thing—and even if the war is a loser for everyone involved, crafty veterans know that no one wants what losers sell. That what the brands are for.