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Beards: Gas-Mask Obstruction, Camouflage, and Cultural Icon

military service members with beards

The month of November draws to a close, and razor companies everywhere are breathing easier again as legions of men resume trimming their facial hair. If you spent the last month scratching the unfamiliar fur on your face, congratulations, you made it through No-shave November. The month-long tradition has roots in supporting worthy causes and raising awareness by growing a beard. For others, it’s a way to justify not shaving for an entire month due to laziness. For others still, it’s a test of manly prowess to see who among a group of friends can grow the biggest beard in a month.

Often, regardless of motivation or reason, the beard gets trimmed or shaven off entirely at the end of the month.

However, for some service members like those in the Special Forces, every day is No-shave November. At Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP)­, we recognize while the act of shaving relates to personal grooming and discipline, in some situations, the presence of a beard can mean the difference between life and death.


Breaking the Seal

Clean shaven – that’s pretty much the default for military servicemen. Gas masks are the most common reason military members can’t grow beards. When a gas mask is placed on a person’s face, it needs to form a perfect seal to keep out toxins, radiation, smoke, or other environmental hazards. But hairs on the face create tiny gaps in that seal – small enough to barely notice, but big enough to be deadly.

However, the debate has been shifting increasingly toward allowing beard growth. Recently, the U.S. Army revised regulations allowing beards and headdresses on religious grounds. The biggest argument against beards has even changed recently, as companies that produce military gas masks have begun testing beard-friendly versions of the gear. 

For some in the military, the beard isn’t just a fashion statement or a lack of willingness to shave – it’s camouflage.


Hiding in Plain Sight

The Special Forces “operator beards” serve more purpose than just a distinguishing feature that sets them apart from other military service members, though there is an element of that. Duffel Blog, a widely popular military satire and humor blog, once joked that a Special Forces member lost his job due to his inability to grow a beard.

It would not be unusual to wonder how several inches of facial hair can make a big difference in one of the most dangerous jobs on Earth. But that beard can serve a very important purpose – blending in. In Afghan culture, beards are a symbol of manhood and coming into your own. Building bonds of trust among the locals is an important part of the strategy in the Global War on Terrorism. Practically speaking, looking like the locals helps with reconnaissance, security, and capture operations.

Even at home in America, blending in is important for Special Forces operators. Beards, longer hair, and other popular styles allow them to fit in with a civilian populace. Ask yourself this – would the government want you knowing your next-door neighbor may or may not be a member of the most highly trained and classified special operations group in the world, just based on their haircut or facial hair? Probably not.


A Cultural Icon

When we hear “Special Forces soldier,” our minds probably go to a very specific place – bearded, tough, and a muscular physique suggesting a diet of nothing but corn since the age of five. Hollywood films over the last decade, including “13 Hours,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “American Sniper,” “Lone Survivor,” and “Seal Team,” certainly have reinforced the way Special Forces operators are perceived. The heroes of those films and shows feature facial hair ranging from “I just woke up” to “I’ve been living in the woods for a year.” Like many Hollywood portrayals, that depiction has a changing measurement of truth, though some truth is certainly there. And that popular depiction has helped normalize beards and bring them back into the mainstream.

Now, some might argue skinny-jean-wearing hipsters are responsible for the facial hair renaissance. False. The military has always been at the forefront of the finest facial hair in history. And to hipsters who like to claim they were there before things became popular, here’s a question. Remember Ambrose Everett Burnside? Union General and namesake for sideburns? No? Yeah – the U.S. Army got there first. How’s that for mainstream?


So whether you’re fishing out your razor for the first time in a month or have made the decision to stay on #teambeards – regardless of rank, branch, or role – remember, always stay in regulation. Happy No-shave November, and may your safety briefs be short, and your beards long.


To learn about something other than beards, like how WWP’s programs and services connect, serve, and empower wounded warriors, visit


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