Army Maj. Ian McConnell said he did a “double take” when he happened to catch the word “medicated” on ball caps when walking by a vendor’s kiosk just outside the exchange at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, where he is stationed.
Ball caps imprinted with “Medicated Vet For Your Protection,” “This Veteran is Medicated For Your Protection” and “Dysfunctional Veteran, Stay Away from Me” were being sold at the vendor’s kiosk on May 16. “I couldn’t make sense of it. I stopped and read the hat a couple times…. I could feel a visceral response inside almost immediately but I wasn’t sure if I was responding correctly,” McConnell said, in an email.
McConnell snapped a photo and tweeted that the caps raised concerns on a variety of levels.
“Honestly, is this intended to be funny? I continue to see too much civ/mil divide over this stereotype…. And see service members choose suicide over treatment,” said McConnell, veteran of four combat deployments.
Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials ordered concessionaires to remove the ball caps, in response to Military Times’ questions prompted by McConnell’s tweet. The caps were also being sold at some other installations, AAFES spokesman Chris Ward, and those concessionaires have been told to stop selling them, too, Ward said. Information was not available about which locations.
“That’s great!” said Ian McConnell, when he learned of AAFES’ actions to remove the caps. “They seemed to respond quickly.”
The caps violate AAFES restrictions against selling products that are vulgar and/or promote drugs and alcohol, said Ward. Military Times queried AAFES officials about the hats the morning of May 18, and officials responded that night they had directed concessionaires to remove them from the shelves.
AAFES hasn’t sold these caps in their exchanges; these concessionaires have agreements to sell products outside the exchange.
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.@MacDill_AFB : asking for a friend, honestly, is this intended to be funny? I continue to see too much civ/mil divide over this stereotype…and see service members choose suicide over treatment. Maybe chat with your BX vendors? pic.twitter.com/2GpZ4ETBas
— Ian McConnell (@Pineland2011) May 16, 2020
Navy Exchange locations aren’t carrying these – or similar—ball caps, said Kristine Sturkie, spokeswoman for the Navy Exchange Service Command.
“NEXCOM has total oversight of the merchandise our concessionaires sell, typically at the local level,” she said. “If any merchandise being sold by a concessionaire is determined to be inappropriate, the local NEX management would stop it from being sold.”
Marine Corps Exchange locations aren’t selling these items, nor are any of their concessionaires selling them, said spokesman Bryan Driver.
McConnell said he asked the kiosk vendor what the caps meant to him, and the vendor replied, “It’s just humor.”
“I told him it was hurting my heart because I’ve seen the destruction of depression and suicide,” McConnell tweeted. “I had to stop talking, just patted my heart with my hand, and walked away,” he said in an email.
“This is also painful because it also insinuates that vets are uniformly dangerous,” he said.
The vendor selling the caps couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
AAFES’ action to remove the caps is “right in line with finding common ground and community together,” McConnell said. Discussions between military and civilians are important, McConnell said. But these conversations with veterans and service members often get awkward with the civilian population, he said, because it’s difficult to convey context.
“We serve at the pleasure of our country; you and I are also citizens of that country together. We should be able to find common ground to relate on. These hats don’t help with that — they make finding that common ground harder. It polarizes feelings among soldiers and civilians,” McConnell said.
McConnell said he’s seen first-hand families torn apart from a need to seek help but one or both spouses wouldn’t.
“I’ve been in the house of a soldier as he contemplated suicide. I’ve done the midnight race to a subordinate’s house because he posted suicidal thoughts online, talking to him on the phone the whole way. A soldier who used to be under my command killed himself just over a year after I changed out of command,” McConnell said.
“That’s why this is so dear to me. There are real people with real hurts. It’s hard to talk about…
“People serve for a variety of reasons, are often better for it, and may need some help along the way. Instead of wearing an edgy hat, strike up a conversation and learn more about the other side. That goes for both of us.”
About Karen Jowers
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.