If you are reading this, the chances are you are a serving soldier or share a general interest in the military.
If you are neither, then please forgive some of the parlance, you will only understand it if you had been there.
In the summer of 1999, after I completed P Company, I attended my jumps course which was run by the RAF at Brize Norton. It was a total holiday compared to the Infantry Training Centre at Catterick.
Gone was the requirement to march or run everywhere, gone were the scary Para Reg NCO’s who seemed to be perpetually coiled to attack you if you fucked up. We sauntered casually each day between cookhouse and training hanger with our maroon berets perched as far forward on our crown as possible, our capbadge skewed as far left as possible and as far over our eyebrows as possible.
We thought we were totally ally………………………we were just crows.
It was a memorable time, a rare occasion that only really happens once in a Paratroopers life and I wanted to be able to remember it. We all took pictures of ourselves and our mates with cheesy grins, kitted out in the back of a Herc, ready to jump and then we all went into the little PJI office attached to the hangar, to buy the thing that really meant we had been there……..The green T shirt with MILITARY PARACHUTE SCHOOL printed on the left breast with a little picture of a HERC and an LLP canopy.
I still have the T-shirt 17 yrs later and it still holds those memories. It has a value to me beyond the £7.50 I paid for it.
This ‘hanker’ for souvenirs is unsurprising given the lifelong impression these times imprint on a soldiers mind, and once a soldier is past his/her training phase the cliché of the ‘been there, done that and bought the T-shirt’ becomes very real as deployments throw young men and women into harms way and life defining situations.
Some of these situations will induce those extreme emotions reserved for extraordinary experiences and later in life will return as memories of fear, of sorrow, of loss and sometimes exhilaration. The trigger for these emotions are mementos of the time and these triggers can often be the Tour T shirt.
Each month we print and embroider a large number of personalised t shirt orders destined to be filtered through the BFPO system to some dusty hotspot or the deck of a warship somewhere around the world.
These garments are all fairly uniform in their construct, with Regimental cap badges sometimes taking up occupation on the left breast while others have unit mascots and ‘in jokes’ as the logo.
Processing these orders is a little different to processing a civvies order, as British soldiers are excellent at fixing bayonets, lobbing mortars and flanking the enemy but rarely do they know what a jpeg, pdf or a vector is. Why would they, it is surplus to requirement.
When placing their orders, they are usually establishing comms with us while they are between patrols and able to get some sat-phone time or dodgy internet connection. Often what is sent over as a ‘brief’ is a hand drawn sketch which has been photographed on their smart phone and emailed, along with a description of what needs to go on the back of the T-shirt.
The left breast area is often embroidered rather than screen-printed. This ensures that the emblem survives contact with the rigours of Army life for as long as possible. Embroidery becomes an integral part of the garment and is more resistant to the interrogation that a hot spin cycle can put it through. It also holds out longer under white noise and stress positions.
The back of the T-shirt is often the names of the members of the unit represented as nicknames.
It is impossible to know how many names we have printed but it will be in the hundreds if not thousands.
It is these names which can be so emotive and make the tour t shirt priceless to the recipients.
It may become soaked in sweat under your smock, stink to high heaven after a long tab, become faded and worn from exposure to a Middle Eastern sun and then confined to your drawer for the rest of its life, but it will always be the proof that you were there with your mates and that you all lived a life less ordinary.
Shirtworks will never know who ‘SMIFFY’ or ‘JANKERS’ or G-STRING’ is. We will never know what they did on tour. Only you and your mates know. Only that T shirt knows.
That T shirt of my time at Brize means nothing in comparison. It did not leave the UK except for an exercise in the Ukraine. It did not dodge danger, it was never frightened or exhilarated by the rush of war fighting. It is a pedestrian memory of clean fatigue jumping over a sunny Oxfordshire airfield with my mates.
Harlow, Armstrong, Griffin, Palmer, Fraser, Adams, Perkins, Howe, Winslow, Temple, Rutter, Hurrell…….etc.
I won’t forget you as long as that festering cotton rag sits in my drawer.
If you, the reader, have stumbled upon this blog while looking for a printer or embroiderer to print your tour t-shirts, then look no further. You are in capable hands.
Click here to the SS10. It has all the colours you need if you want a cotton T.
Click here for the JC001. It has all the colours you need if you want ‘wicking’
Our call-sign is SHIRTWORKS.
We are on standby.