All Troopers of the Cavalry can and do wear the Cavalry Hat with pride. Most inductees into a Cavalry unit can obtain a Cav Hat in several different ways- by purchasing one, receiving it as a gift, or even having one of the members of your unit sponsoring a Cav Hat for the inductee. However, the inductee Trooper is not authorized to wear his or her Cav Hat at a unit function until it is properly broken in. The breaking in ceremony is similar to an initiation, or rite of passage, and builds comradery among the Cav Troopers. In the days of the mounted cavalry, many hats were made with water-proof liners, not only to keep the rain off, but also to carry water. When a horse and rider would come to a steep riverbed, the Cav Trooper, knowing that his horse always comes first, would use his Cav Hat to scoop water for his horse to drink.
Cav soldiers have incorporated this practice into the ‘breaking in” tradition. The new inductee holds the hat upside down, and the senior spur holders pour a mix of different alcohols into the hat.
To conduct this event properly, the senior Cav Hat wearers and spur holders have a couple of responsibilities: First, set the ground rules. The new Troopers will be drinking this mix, so keep it somewhat clean. Try to refrain from throwing raw eggs, chewing tobacco, spit, or cigar ashes into it. At least try. Next, when pouring in alcohol, it should represent the Cavalry in some way. For example, “In honor of Garryowen’s tremendous sacrifices in the frozen hell that was Korea, against the massed and savage red hordes that died on regimental blades, we add that potent and devious extract known as Soju” or “The Persian Gulf War taught us that with the addition of our tanks, our Bradleys, and our aircraft, we had worthy replacements for our old cavalry steeds. To salute the war, we add sand, and for our new dedicated workhorses, we add their lifeblood, JP-8.” (substituted with grain alcohol).
Similar to many of the Cavalry traditions, how a unit breaks in inductees’ Cav Hats is up to them. Some require it to be a formal occasion (i.e. dining out or dining in), but many make the “breaking in” an informal portion of the unit’s Hail and Farewell. The “hail and bail” as it is sometimes referred to, gives the chain of command an opportunity to officially greet (and introduce) the incoming soldiers and their families to the unit, as well as recognize Troopers who are departing due to PCS, ETS, or retirement. A “breaking in” can also be conducted at an informal event or location such as a unit party. The latter is sometimes a better idea, as this event can sometimes get messy.
The tradition of the Cav Hat is believed to have been originated in early 1964 by LTC John B. Stockton (Commander of 3/17 Cavalry) at Fort Benning, Georgia. The hat was adopted in an effort to increase esprit de corps in the new air cavalry squadron and was meant to emulate the look of the 1876 pattern campaign hat worn by cavalry troopers long ago. Once units deployed to Vietnam , the custom slowly spread to other air cavalry units, and by the cessation of hostilities, virtually all air cav (and some ground cav) units had adopted the Cav hat. While unit commanders did not mandate the wearing of the hats, there was considerable peer pressure to conform, and most troopers quickly added the Cav hat to their wardrobes. Just as World War 11 paratroopers were fond of their jump suits, wearing them long after issue had ceased, so too did the Cav hat instill fierce pride and loyalty in the units where it was worn. While the Cav Hat is not an issued item, the Troopers wear their Cav hats for special cavalry events and ceremonies, including formal events, gathering of spur holders, professional gatherings and other cavalry events. Most air cavalry veterans interviewed by the author proudly cherish their Cav hats today.