Many of you may be aware that men sprout some unaccustomed facial hair for “Movember,” an annual charity event that has been steadily growing in popularity over the past few years. You may even have grown a mustache yourself.
The very first Movember, which took place in 1999, was actually a fundraiser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). It was a group of men from Adelaide, Australia, who set themselves the challenge and coined the term for growing a mustache throughout the month of November as a charity fundraising activity.
A few years later, in 2003, another group of Australian guys came together in Melbourne. Their goal was to encourage people to talk about prostate cancer and depression among men, and they chose to use the Movember model as a way to get people to start the conversation.
The Movember Foundation, whose manifesto is “to stop men dying too young,” has since become a worldwide platform for raising funds and awareness of men’s health issues, especially prostate and testicular cancer, and to break down the stigma surrounding mental health.
But what many people don’t know is that the idea of growing a ‘tache for a month is a sport embraced by a number of members of the United States Air Force, under the guise of Mustache March. What has since 2014 been a Major Air Command (MAJCOM) sanctioned fundraising competition could be based on similar events that take place every year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, in support of cancer charities. But some strongly disagree, saying that it’s a time-honored tradition tracing back to a single man.
Mustache March is a time when USAF gives a nod to one of its heroes–the highly decorated and inspirational World War II and Vietnam veteran, triple-ace pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds (1922-2007). Celebrated for his lead-from-the-front attitude and formidable skill as a fighter pilot, Olds is also remembered for his iconic facial hair.
From a young age, Olds aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father, Major General Robert Olds. Robin Olds was an All-American star football player at Westpoint, in 1942 hailed as both “Player of the Year” and “Lineman of the Year.” He received his wings in May 1943 and, after fighter-pilot training, was stationed in England, where he soon showed that he excelled in the air as well as on the field. From September 1966, Olds held command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. Already a well-respected commander within the Air Force, it was Operation Bolo that really made Olds a celebrity in the American press, his perfectly executed plan to lure North Vietnamese Mig-21s into a trap, resulting in seven enemy aircraft destroyed and two shot down.
At a time when clean shaven was the only acceptable dress code for American servicemen, it is reported that Olds started to grow his bushy handlebar in March 1967 after his unit’s success in Operation Bolo.
“It became the middle finger I couldn’t raise in the PR photographs. The mustache became my silent last word in the verbal battles…with higher headquarters on rules, targets, and fighting the war.”
The story soon spread that his mustache made him bulletproof, and this superstition only added to the respect paid by his men. Many of his fellow airmen proudly wore their own “bulletproof” mustaches. During his daring career, Olds was decorated a total of 54 times and is credited with 16 confirmed victories.
A maverick who did not bow to the will of superiority, he would ask nothing of his men that he wouldn’t do himself and eschewed the standard method of leadership from the rear. But even though he flouted restrictions on the number of sorties he could engage in, Olds would not disobey a direct order. When told to “Take it off!” by Air Force Chief of Staff, General John P. McConnell, off it came.
His rebellious attitude, bravery, and ability has now been immortalized in Mustache March. Although some may argue that it doesn’t embody the true spirit of rebellion, as regulation mustaches are now permitted by the Air Force, Mustache March is all about building morale and fostering camaraderie. And that is why we are certain that Brig. Gen. Olds, if he was still with us today, would support it 100 percent.
Section 18.104.22.168. of Air Force Instruction 36-2903 states, “… male Airmen may have mustaches; however they will be conservative (moderate, being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme) and will not extend downward beyond the lip line of the upper lip or extend sideways beyond a vertical line drawn upward from both corners of the mouth.”