It could only happen at a military ball. And not just any military ball, but the winter formal for the elite 3rd Special Forces Group. The next day, 19 of its soldiers would be awarded Silver Stars, the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor. But tonight was the night for a party. With near constant deployments, it was the first time in months that all five battalions were home at the same time, and they turned out in full force, about 1,000 soldiers and their dates, dressed to the nines.
They stepped out of stretch limos and into the Crown Expo Center. On the screens, soldiers scrambled through the dust and dirt, but now, those same soldiers were in their best “dress mess.” Women spent weeks searching for the perfect gown and most of the day on hair, nails and makeup.
But it was the men who planned the event, deejays to decorations. “They are beautiful,” said Maj. Darin Blatt, one of the organizers,” but this is not a Green Beret’s area of expertise.”
These evenings are intended for fun and entertainment, but this is the Army, and the military does not leave its rules and regulations at home.
Military balls are rich in history and tradition, some dating back to 16th-century England though records indicate that militaries held formal dinners as far back as the Roman Legion. The Vikings held formal ceremonies to honor and celebrate battles and war heroes. During the 18th century, the British Army incorporated the practice of formal dining into its regimental mess system. Americans, taking many of their traditions from the British military, held mess nights in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the tradition waned after the Civil War. It was only after World War II that the custom was revived.
Teresa Tucker, wife of Gen. Michael Tucker, has been to many military balls over the course of her husband’s career.
“They are all similar,” she said, “full of tradition and camaraderie.”
Planning such a large event can be a tough job. “Planning for a military ball is a lot of hard work, “ Tucker said, “but are also fun and helps to build friendships during the process.”
Most military balls begin with a receiving line and a color guard. Not a sound can be heard as all eyes follow the flags or when guests raise a silent toast to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action.
At the front of the room is a table set for one, symbolizing fallen comrades. Every item has special meaning: a white table cloth symbolizes purity, a yellow rose for remembrance, a red ribbon for bloodshed, a slice of lemon for the solders’ bitter fate and salt on a plate for the families’ tears. It’s a solemn reminder about the realities of war.
But there are usually lighter moments, too. The truly brave may be called for the ceremonial drinking of the “grog.”
Legend has it that during the westward expansion, cavalry troops would share whatever whiskey they had, ensuring that everyone had something to drink. As they mixed their brews, it created a potent concoction known as “grog.” Today, this tradition lives on with a few twists. Soldiers might dump “sand” (brown sugar) into the punch bowl to symbolize a battlefield in Iraq, for example, though each unit has its own customs. The master of ceremonies may pick a “lucky” soldier, or several, to drink from the bowl.
It is only after the colors have been retired that the formal portion of the ball ends and the dancing begins.
It’s what the 3rd Special Forces Group had been waiting for.
Couples swayed to the music as clumps of women laughed and boogied their way through the electric slide. But according to Tanya Miller, formals are about one thing: “The dress!” she said. “People always say, ‘Where will I ever get to wear this dress? Well … at a formal!”
Yong Ramsey donned traditional Korean formal attire for the ball. Draped in bright oranges, pinks and yellows, she stood arm in arm with her husband, Maj. Jeffrey Ramsey. “This isn’t our first military ball. I drag her to all of them,” he said. “I like her to wear her cultural costume to show it off. So, I’m proud of her.” And, he joked, “I gave her plenty of time to get ready.”
“He will be deploying soon,” Yong Ramsey said, “so I want to enjoy this time with him.”
For the 3rd Group, it was a rare evening when everyone was in the same room at the same time. It won’t last long – with wars in two countries and deployments around the world, most of the battalions of the 3rd Group will be packing their bags once more.
Miller looked around the room and said, with a bittersweet smile, “This will probably be the last time they see each other before they deploy.”