America's Ultimate Weapon


As an Army officer headed to the USAF “Cool School” I naturally presumed any
course presided over by the Wing Nuts would be a walk in the park. I was mistaken
— the arctic cold is no respecter of services. USAF photo: SSG Vernon Young

Soldiers develop an unnatural attachment to the tools of their peculiar profession. Let a stockbroker suffer a catastrophic laptop failure and some critical PowerPoint presentation will likely suffer. The same failure of an Infantryman’s primary tool carries substantially greater gravitas.

Soldiering is a young man’s game. Not only could my knees not bear a proper road march, my general comportment would no longer tolerate the job. If ordered to take some forsaken hill these days, I’d be more inclined to nuke the site from orbit just so I could get home for a good night’s sleep. Old guys make formidable if unpredictable adversaries.


Military service, for all its exoticism, regimentation, and abject lunacy, is quite the rush so long as you’re not getting vaporized. The toys simply have no peer. If you put a 23-year-old male behind the controls of a multimillion dollar gunship helicopter you can’t honestly be surprised when he rolls it inverted just to see what might happen. It drops out of the sky like a greased brick … or so I’m told.

An M1A1 tank weighs 135,000 lbs. yet can get you stopped for speeding in many suburban locales. An Mk19 automatic grenade launcher throws high explosive grenades out to 2,200 meters at a rate of 380 rounds per minute. Watching rocket artillery work over an impact area is like glimpsing the death angel at play. However, all that cool-guy stuff pales in comparison to the one piece of GI kit that rules them all — the humble woobie.

Even today more than two decades after I left the military, I still use my woobie.
Nothing’s better for snuggling up with a warm wife on a cold night.

Weapon: Mass Relaxation

The National Stock Number is 8405-01-547-2559. The technical appellation is the Poncho Liner, USGI Issue, ACU Pattern (UCP). Everybody who has ever worn the uniform calls it the woobie.

The term itself has murky origins. The military version holds “woobie” is mil-slang for “You Would Be cold without it.” I don’t buy that. In the 1983 Michael Keaton film Mr. Mom, the kid calls his security blanket his woobie. I subscribe to the Mr. Mom school myself.

The item in question was first issued in the Vietnam era. The woobie consists of two layers of gossamer nylon material within which is sandwiched a thin stratum of polyester filling. The whole shebang is sewed crossways and edged for exceptional durability. Those earliest woobies were crafted from WWII-surplus parachute material. Hence the camouflage.

The woobie was intended to be secured within a GI-issue poncho by means of tie strings along its edges. My ponchos always smelled like roadkill. By contrast, my woobie was more like a portable all-weather womb.

Behold the woobie. The GI Poncho Liner is the most beloved piece of kit in the military inventory.

Military Intimacy

I signed into my battalion in Alaska amidst what would ultimately be one of the coldest winters on record. Once I made my introductions at the S3 shop the ops NCO said, “Hey, sir. You want to go to Cool School?”

I was an Army Aviator. Of course I wanted to go to Cool School. Perhaps I could teach the instructors a few things concerning the refined art of being awesome. Just what was Cool School again?

Cool School is the Air Force Arctic Survival Course. This five-day jaunt into the Alaskan tundra is also colloquially referred to as The Air Force Food Appreciation Course. Two days in the arctic on a single MRE is hardly the Bataan Death March, but I licked every scrap of that thing down and also ate a boiled rabbit. You burn a lot of calories at 40 below zero.

The first night outside was 34 below zero. The second was 43 below. I spent the entirety of that second day building a snow cave. Think of it as a tomb just big enough for your fart sack (sleeping bag) and surrounded by about three feet of packed snow. I wrapped myself in my woobie before inserting my miserable carcass into my cold-soaked sack. Two hours’ worth of shivering later, I was snug and toasty, while my woobie and I were enjoying a relationship that was not altogether professional.

I learned a lot about life when I was a soldier. I enjoyed some extraordinary fellowship and did indeed see the world. I also discovered that I really, really hate eating boiled rabbit.

Forget hypersonic missiles, carrier battle groups, and CAG operators HALO-ing out of the darkness. That’s all just comic book stuff. America’s most effective combat multiplier is undoubtedly the humble woobie.

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