CIVILIAN CONTRACTORS: The Greyman

The 5.11 Tuxedo: Cargo Pants + 5.11 Shirt + Riggers Belt + International Airport = NOT GREYMAN!

Perhaps it is my innate curiosity or, for years I was actually employed to be highly observant – or more than likely I am just a nosey bastard by nature. Probably it is the latter and not the former. Cops can spot other cops a mile away. It’s been that way forever probably.

I can also tell you that I can spot fellow security contractors in much the same way. Many of you who are reading this right now are saying “yeah, you’re right, so can I”. We like to think it is a special talent that allows us to recognize a fellow meat eater.

There is some truth to that, but for the most part we are a fairly observant bunch and there are certain visual cues that we give off that inadvertently reveal who we are to one another and unfortunately to others with less than desirable motives.

For the last couple of years, I have been a government contractor who travels quite extensively by the requisites of my job. Now, having been around the globe a few times, I have found myself sitting in various airports, and Hotels where I can sit and partake in one of my favorite pastimes, People watching.

Now, the places that I find myself in are typically places where the native folks have less than a stellar view of my home country and in particular, my industry Security Contracting. Part of the reason why I do this is simply OPSEC. People-watching is a great way to get a feel for the place.

As a bi-product it answers tactical questions that I am subconsciously thinking about. : “Is it safe to be here?”, “What are the natural rhythms and schedules of the place?” Who belongs, who doesn’t and the like.

Don’t Stand Out From The Crowd Wile Traveling – You Endanger Not Only Yourself, But Your Fellow Contractors

There is also the reality that there is someone out there doing the very same thing that I am, but for very different and deadlier reasons. I am not going to go into a lot of Surveillance detection in this article, because frankly that is an entire topic on its own.

What I am going to do is point out some of the thing s that I have observed that some of our brethren who I know have been schooled in the right way… but for some damn reason, be it a poor self image, the need to grandstand or simply not conscious, that they are holding a sign that says “Target”.

The last time I flew out, I watched in horror as a guy walked down the concourse to get on the airplane.  He had his 511 pants on, his 511 shirt, his company hat and a tan Blackhawk bag that had his nametag nicely stitched on it. I asked him if he knew he stuck out like a sore thumb and he said yeah, but “so what”.

This Backpack Screams LOOK AT ME – I AM MILITARY OR A CIVILIAN CONTRACTOR!

Now, in the age of the shoe bomber, underwear bomber and as news reports have recently shown “Boob bombers” and other terrorists who are still targeting western flights. This guy highlighted what flight he takes. More importantly he potentially also identified which flight carries the maximum number of expat contractors and other high value targets that terrorists would love to have.

Now, Lets back track his journey to the airport. Any casual observer now knows what hotel he frequents, more than likely his company has a whole herd of his co-workers housed there and now, they too were possibly painted for a Mumbai style attack. But….He does not care. He has his image to keep up and the need to impress somebody… I think that’s the part that really ticked me off. It was his nonchalance attitude.

Now, you want to risk your own life, Have at it…But when you so arrogantly risk mine, I get a little pissed.

The Mumbai Terror Attacks Specifically Targeted Western Foreigners

We all take risks, its part of our job, but not needless risks. Now the guy mentioned above was the glowing neon sign of what not to do, there are of course other less subtle tell tale signs that many of us inadvertently do that reveals who we are.

Here are a few examples:

For many of us, we have down time. That means a lot of time spent in the gym. This is great! We have the strength and stamina to pull our clients and buddies to safety and still keep up the fight.  All that time in the gym produces results that you may be proud to show off with snug t-shirts or other attire that is figure hugging.

Now, the downside is that is for the most part, the men in the countries where we travel do not have the same athletic build or diet to support the muscle growth that western cultures do. This of course makes you stand out. While this is nice in a bar full of hot chicks, it is not so nice in a country where there are Fatwa’s issued to kill the unbeliever… You catch my drift?

Besides Being Gay, Tight-Ass UU Shirts Can highlight You Are a Westerner

I know that we don’t spend a lot of time looking down. But, before you get on the next airplane out of your AO, have a look at your shoes. Are you wearing the latest greatest Merrill product or equivalent thereof? Sure are nice. One of the things that I train my guys to do is to look at Haji’s shoes when we are out and about and have a look at the beards.

Certain things are dead giveaways to who they are and it is no different for you. Look at your back pack. Is it the latest BlackHawk, LA Police gear, Maxpedition etc? If it is, Might as well hold a sign too. Speaking of Looking, What are you looking through? As in your eyewear? Those cool guy ballistic Oakley’s sure are nice!  What about on your wrists or head? You wearing one of those “Survival bracelets” as they are called?

Each of these things by themselves may not be the giveaway, but a series of these visual cues tend to add up and you may unwittingly identify yourself.

Here are a few things that I recommend for traveling grey:

For one, have a set of travel clothes. These should be non-descript, comfortable and are designed to blend in pretty much anywhere. Your appearance right down to your shoes should not convey any nationality hints or identifiable traits that make you stand out.

The clothing should be loose fitting, either a larger button up shirt with an off brand generic jacket. Buy a pair of jeans from the Haji mart, they are non-descript and come in a whole host of brands from around the globe.

Wear comfortable tennis shoes.  Nothing fancy with ridiculous colors. Accessorize with reading material that in no way reflects your profession, preferably something in a foreign language. Look at your travel bag. Is it a generic one that does not have a whiff of “Tactical” coming off of it?  And shave.

Do Not Wear Your Desert Combat Boots Wile Traveling (or while clubbing)

And lastly, don’t do a lot of talking. Your goal is to fade in to the back ground. In essence become the proverbial “Grey man” If someone were to ask about you they should have a hard time describing any concrete details other than generic height and weight. Your ability to blend in is really limited to your imagination.

I know some of you remember classes on camouflage. Camouflage is not just about hiding in the forest or out in the desert, it’s a state of mind. Apply those same lessons to your travel clothing and lesson the likelihood of becoming a victim. It’s not just your life that is at risk!

Read All CIVILIAN CONTRACTORS Articles

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~Luke W.
Contributing Correspondent
Luke served 8 years in the US Marine reserves and is a former Georgia Police Officer. He has been a firearms instructor since 1998 training LE, Civilians, Military and US Contractors. Luke is currently in his second rotation in Afghanistan where he is the lead for a PSD team.

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65 thoughts on “CIVILIAN CONTRACTORS: The Greyman”

  1. Excellent. As contractors, we have the advantage of looking like civilians, because we are civilians. To not take advantage of that during travel, is kind of stupid.

    Some companies get weird about hair grooming standards, but most just allow guys to do whatever. I say grow it out a little if you can.

    Other times, guys get stupid with the hair, and grow out ridiculous Afghanistan style ODA beards or something. That is a dead give away and if anything, the beard will work against you in country.

    Just look like a normal person, and be the gray man out there.

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  2. This is a good article. I found it very helpful. You should expand upon it, maybe using scenarios and examples more. I would definitely read more articles on this topic. (of course maintain opsec, can be fictional).

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    1. The best thing to do brother is to take what you need for the moment and leave the rest. The advice given above was excellent, and you should use as much as you can. Enemy operatives are trained to go to our Goodwill stores and buy clothing that is a little worn, but nice. Same with the shoes, or even 1/2 boots, LL Bean, back packs, etc. So, do the same as our enemy and go Goodwill for some new duds and then to the mall and see if you find anyone you know. Camouflage is a state of mind as was said earlier. Walk past and then sit on a bench ahead of them and see if they recognize you. The object is not to make eye contact, of course. Experiment right here at home, before you go to Hong Kong or Azerbijian. Even if you are NOT operating, it will keep nuisance locals out of your face thinking you are a rich American target for a hand out. Good luck brother.

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  3. Matt:
    Wear a suite when I travel – pretty much no contractor dresses like that so I look pretty grey, just another businessman traveling.

    Wombat:
    What sort of info are you interested in hearing?

    ~James G

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  4. Guys,

    I am totally the grey man opposite – battle scars, 5.11′s, boots, packs, and the whole lot.

    I don’t consider my choices savvy or intelligent in the least, but a lot of the time it’s just the only crap I own or have on me coming out of the field.

    Paint a huge bullseye on my ass.

    Great article.

    Bubba

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  5. Being the “Gray Man” goes back to what you learned on Sesame Street — LISTEN to the Cookie Monster:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WhuikFY1Pg

    -Stan

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  6. i only wear carharrt pants and some type of work shirt down range. I have always thought 5.11 stuff was for followers. kinda like tattos and gotee’s.

    tomahawk

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  7. Bubba:
    Well Bubba you wearing your 5.11 Tuxedo everyday is forgivable – because like you said, it’s just the only clothing you own

    It’s the guys that wear the 5.11 Tuxedo because they are trying to look Tactical Cool or show off wile going through the airport in Amman that annoy me.

    The last time I was in Amman at a certain hotel that will remain unnamed guys were not only wearing 5.11 head to toe but US flag patches in their arms – I mean com on guys WTF! No need for that shit

    Stanley_White:
    Coolie monster says; ‘One of theses things is does not belong”

    ~James G

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  8. Another excellent post, and I agree that more articles along this line would be well received! Although I do wear a lot of cargo-pocket pants – mainly because they seem roomier in the crotch – I keep a few pair of sturdy, well-worn work pants ( Carhart, Dickey ) and work shirts, as I find that such gear is about as strong and durable as any BDUs OR 5.11, but they absolutely do not stand out if one needs to ‘fade into the background’.

    As an acquaintance once noted, you can throw in a lunch kit or a surveyor’s hard plastic transit case ( holding whatever items you find useful) and never draw a glance… depending, of course, on your locale.

    Have also seen fellows make use of the ‘student’ look in some countries, a worn student backpack, possibly with a Canadian or Swiss patch on it, loose jeans, and so on. I seem to recall an article called “Urban Camouflage” in a magazine years ago, and it touched on some of the same topics. As always the best compliment that one can receive on their urban camo job is -
    “What did the guy look like?”

    ” I don’t know – just..umm.. average, I guess… just like everyone else, you know?”

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  9. I never really cared. What is everyone worried about? If they were targeting a specific flight, it wouldn’t be you that they flagged for a bombing. The truth is that in a Muslim country they will spot you whatever you are wearing.

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  10. 5.11 Clothing – The uniform for guys that don’t wear a uniform.

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  11. Roy: 5.11 Clothing – The uniform for guys that don’t wear a uniform.  (Quote This Comment)

    Bingo!

    Like I said, I think it has to do allot with “being part of the gang”

    I worked on a contract in Iraq where we were authorized to wear Army Issue ACU’s if (Read: IF) we wanted to. But still – like 1/4 the guys (pretty much all the dudes on the contract that had never been in the military) chose to wear them over civilian clothing.

    I never did unless I was working outside of the wire with an Army unit and I would be the only guy NOT wearing ACU’s. I didn’t want to be the only guy wearing Jeans and a t-shirt and a Coyote Brown HSGI kit standing next to a bunch of uniformed solders on the Iranian border = “This guy is someone important/different, Mr. Sniper please shoot him in his gigantic head” .

    That’s actually a good example of when to wear tactical clothing to blend in.

    ~James G

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    1. LOL. Love “gigantic head.” Well, you just showed your bona fides! Sometimes the truth is hysterical. Thanks!!!

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  12. How did guys with not military experience get a contracting job? i thought they needed to be former military with lots of experience? great blob by the way.

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  13. How did guys with not military experience get a contracting job?i thought they needed to be former military with lots of experience?great blob by the way.  

    There are guys out there that were cops and went with a Civpol mission. It all depends on what the requirements the client puts on the contract. It’s also how much you have networked and who you have met and made a good relationship with.

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  14. How did guys with not military experience get a contracting job? i thought they needed to be former military with lots of experience? great blob by the way.  (Quote This Comment)

    These days you don’t need former military experience to get a gig as a Civilian Contractor for non-armed jobs

    For Armed gigs you need to either have a hook-up or start on a low-speed overseas security gig

    ~James G

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  15. Thanks to soldiersystems.net for mentioning this article, if you all don’t know about Soldier Systems it is a great mil gear blog

    Check it out

    ~James G
    

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  16. Having been a LE type for twenty years or so I was wearing Royal Robbins before they were popular.

    Travelling back and forth to Europe during the late unpleasantness of the 1980′s and 90′s I learned to dress down. Americans standout. The trick like the Greyman says is to blend and fade away.

    One of my partners coined the phrase for 5.11′s

    “Shoot me first pants.”

    Lose the Tac Pack, the rigger belt and the big watch. Lap top? That skull and crossed Sword sticker and Got Sig sort of says who you are. Save the Whales or Green Peace is always good.

    It’s tough to break out of our persona. It’s who we are.

    The look of the IMM is now just casual pants, loose fitting shirts, those shoes you’d never be caught with around the team house might be in order. I’m not sayiing go for the Metro sexual look. I like wayfarer shades.

    I can’t get away from that Miami Vice look.

    Think fade to grey.

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  17. “Shoot me first pants.”.  (Quote This Comment)

    Ha! “Shoot me Pants” – good one but true

    I like wayfarer shades. I can’t get away from that Miami Vice look.Think fade to grey.  (Quote This Comment)

    You can never go wrong with the Miami Vice Look!

    Errrrr…. Ok, scratch that…

    You can never go wrong with The NEW Miami Vice Look

    ~James G

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  18. Um yeah! I deserve an ACCUU SLAP for that! New Miami Vice Look is correct!

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  19. It’s all about the short sleeve, button down, front pocket shirts. Unless you’re fat, then you look like a slob

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  20. I have to go to Pakistan occasionally to do security assessments of certain facilities. It’s just me or one other person. Trust me, you already stand out but don’t stand out like an idiot or you will pay the price. They can smell a westerner coming a mile away. Don’t wear your 5.11s or Oaklys. Go there looking like every other business man, or “grey.” Stay on your toes, get in do your work and get out.

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  21. I’m a newbie, never been to afghanistan but will be there some time in the future.

    I found this site and your article real informative… Until I found it, I was being told by guys at my company to by 511 gear. (I’m an IT geek… truly, what the hell do I need that for.)

    As I read this, as long as I travel in a suit or “non flashy clothing, (khakis, shoes, plain shirt, etc.) I should be fine… right? Please feel free to dish out any advice you can.

    My goal right now is to come over, make some money for my family back home, and get back home alive… Thanks

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  22. Basically when you travel in high risk areas just dress like you do now – “regular guy” clothing. People will know you are a foreigner, but it is best that they don’t know you are a contractor or working with the military.

    Leave the 5.11 tuxedo for when you are on base

    And if this is your first time working as a civilian contractor you may want to read up on the other CC articles we have here

    http://www.deathvalleymag.com/category/civilian-contractors/

    ~James G

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  23. Thanks for the fast reply! I’ve been reading your posts… funny, yet poignant stuff! I’ve already referred your website to our entire team as mandatory reading. Cheers!

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  24. i dont know if anyone would care to hear from a outside point of view. im not in the contracting business.im a river boat captain that deal with nothing but foreign nationals and a aging punk rock kid that ran the streets of new orleans growing up.

    i can say most of you guys are real easy to pick out not so much your clothes but your body language and how you wear your clothes. cops are the worst and easiest to pick out, but military or like minded are just as easy.

    cops when standing still tend to keep their hands almost in a ready position above their waste,(right above where their gun belt rides) they almost look uncomfortable not knowing what to do with their hands and they tend to square off their stance when talking to someone..

    military and cops a like trying to dress civi seem to miss the mark,usually y’alls clothes are to squared away and to neat,stand real rigid and tend to walk with a little to fast. y’all walk determined and with purpose like your missing pressing business even if its just going to the vending machine..shoes are to clean and for god sakes quit pressing your pants.

    smile and give some one a hello nod every once in a wile,cops and military typs seem to stare and not smile,take it from someone who’s been in plenty of fights growing up, its real easy to see your sizing people up and trying to figure out who is a threat or not…most regular people are to busy doing other stuff to size everyone up that comes in their area.im not saying dont do it,just dont do with with your war face on.

    put your hands in your pocket for no good reason,normal ppl play pocket pool allll the time,lean on a wall when waiting, you guys never put your hands in you pockets just because.or lean on something.

    wear you pants a little baggy,untuck your shirts relax your stance slow your walk a little bit,,this will hep you blend in..

    to me these are the things that really help you guys stand out.

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  25. Good observations

    The way you act can make you stand out just as much as your clothing

    ~James G

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  26. what really helped me was seeing the glaring differences in friends before and after boot camps,even tho they are home they just cant relax all the way..its like they are always waintg for someone to catch them doing something wrong. picking out cops well i guess we all learn about cops one way or another haha.

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  27. Great article, thanks.

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  28. Great article and even better comments. For me grey means not standing out, in other words don’t become a victim. When traveling it usually works dressing well, don’t mean wearing a tie in a long haul but look like a salary man that is going somewhere; shave, non-descript suit and blue shirt works wonders. Not just with potential crazies but also with customs. Completely forgettable.

    In the country look what other people are wearing around you. If the locals wear dark unbranded pants then the latest hip hop brand might stick out. Same btw with cargo pants, only tourists wear them. Here in East Africa I doubt you will find many people knowing a brand like 5.11 but trust me they see a guy with almost white cargo pants and they’ll smell the tourist.

    Next door to were I used to live was the Israeli embassy, never seen one of their guys in tactical clothes, jeans and shirt that’s about it.

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  29. I think the key to being grey is not to overdo it – in either direction. A pair of cargo pants won’t necessarily make you stand out as a security contractor; it’s when you add the shirt, the belt, the bag, etc. You need to look natural in whatever you’re wearing, and looking natural means feeling comfortable in what you wear. (A bit like carrying a concealed weapon – if you’re not comfortable carrying a piece in the first place, it doesn’t matter how well concealed it is.) Like asc.rudeboy says, it’s a lot about body language and HOW you wear whatever you’re wearing.

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  30. asc.rudeboy was dead-on. I recall when I was a fobbit in Iraq one of my duties was as liaison for our local workers. It took all of 2 seconds to size up my crew and I soon realized that the 2 Iraqi guys I felt most comfortable being around were actually former Iraqi soldiers (a sergeant and a retired sergeant major!). Soldiers carry ourselves differently. It is what it is and I foind myself now, in Europe as a maintenance contractor, working hard to hide my American soldier side.

    Thankfully, it seems to be working, as I have in the 3 whole weeks I’ve been here, I find myself smiling and nodding as some local starts trying to converse in German. Maybe, someday, I too can be a Grey Man.

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  31. Lately I have been rocking Mountain Khakis. They are bomber and stylish. Kinda like carhartt’s but not construction guy. they are pricey, but worth it.

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  32. Hahaha – I really laughed at these comments. In South Africa, we tried our best to get OUT of military service, and avoided cammo and BDU clothing like the plague. Now everyone wears cammo…. what a laugh. Was in Mozambique not too long ago, changing US Dollars into the local currency, turned around to find a black dude in cammo pointing an AK47 in my general direction………nearly hit the deck, whilst reaching back for my concealed weapon….. then I realised that he was the Bank Security Guard…

    Good advice to put hands in pockets, and also learn to walk and talk slower, slouch and don’t “march” when in no hurry. Looking “military” can get you into trouble quickly in Africa. BTW I was a MISSIONARY in AFRICA, not a MERCENERY….haha

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  33. From another non-security pro, think of who you analyze more. Just in normal people watching you always know who you can look over and who who need a little more observance. Just remember the later guy and don’t be him. You know what you are looking out for. So does the other guy.

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  34. Great article Luke. My dad, being the traveler he was, had this wired back in 79′ when he took myself and my sister to Europe. I couldnt understand why he didnt want me to wear anything that would identify us as Americans. I thought he was just being anti-patriotic. We spoke in spanish and were told to say we were from mexico to not give us away. He would say “There are people here that would do us harm Matthew.” I didnt care. Me being a patriotic, punk of a 10-year old and all. For petesake, we were in England on the 4th of July! I kept saying, “But dad, we won!” It was worse in France where we would walk everywhere and blended in with the locals as much as possible. Four months later, they hit the US Embassy in Iran. I guess he knew more than I gave him credit for. Thanks Luke!

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  35. Great article and I would add if I may, that one trick that has worked for me is to adopt a “persona” if you will that I travel with…or a couple.

    Being an Aussie I can pull off the Aussie middle aged slob sport tourist, that is a pair of tracksuit pants, Wallabies (Rugby) jersey, worn Nikes, Aussie themed ball cap (having a previous back fracture, I am a little expanded around the middle which helps).

    I am also comfortable in a suit and tie or the middle ground of smart casual business attire. What I tend to do is swap “personas” if I am doing multiple leg trips (and most trips from Aussie are stop-overs somewhere). So the longest leg will be the sport attire as it is comfortable for those long hours in the saddle.

    The shorter legs will get a mix and match of smart casual/suit/tie etc. With minimum thought and effort you can change the look enough to throw an observer off long enough to lose you if they are following (yes I’m paranoid and I don’t care) and not so much that the in-house security in terminals marks you as a threat.

    Remember, when you size people up who as well trained as observers as you are, they also mark you as a threat when that is their job in that locale. If you make a radical clothing change in a terminal toilet block on a 2 hr layover, you are marked as hiding something. On a 12 hr layover, not so much!

    The way to make this work is to have some un-interesting comment for the casual conversation when the guy beside you asks about your travel. Me, I am on my way home after a trip to see a sporting event, or a business consultant one my way to anywhere other than my real destination. Having worked in these areas post military service, I can pull it off.

    One thing I can’t seem to do is move casually, so I simply adopt the harried business guy who’s focused on his work or the overly energetic sports fan trying to prove he can still keep up. I do manage to stop and look at Arrival/Departure boards and referring back to my travel documents enough to look a little lost as well.

    Once my beard has grown out to a respectable length, I keep it trimmed, tidy and with my grey hair in the Middle East/Western Asia, I can also adopt get away with local attire, but try to minimise that look as my Pashtun/Dari skills don’t support my looking like a Pashtun.

    Having lived outside the wire with a mixed Pashtun/Tajik team, I have the mannerisms and enough language skills down to make my transition through official choke points like Airport Security easy and painless for the most part.

    The biggest mistake I see from guys who’ve got the greyman look nailed is to then open their mouths and demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the people they are trying to blend in with.

    Smile, be polite, compliment people and their country, their security, and thank them for being so thorough when they start giving you static.

    There is a time for “Loud and Proud” and then there’s travelling!

    Stay Safe one and all.

    AJ sends

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  36. I think the 5.11 joke is already an old joke even down at the .civ level. a few years ago it was fag bags and fishing vests, then 5.11 and riggers belts.

    Still, while all of these things stick out as the shoot me first guy. You can still easily easily pick out the guys who are or were on the job at some point or were .mil, even is the appearance is 100 percent correct.

    It all comes down to body language, specifically posturing and posturing behavior. The same way we can all make out who doesn’t belong or whos carrying. The same is often fairly easy to make with us. Old habits die hard. When was the last time you carried something with your strong side hand and left your weak open? You realize that is how normal people carry things. What about the way you stand, not just posture either, you can carry as deeply concealed as physically possible and you can still get made in half a second by someone with half a brain and who actually takes the time to look. Are you naturalling guarding your strong side hip? watching hands, making early eye contact, guarding your CCW when greeting someone? etc.

    Posturing is the key to figuring out who everyone is, regardless of dress. In a world of sheep a dog will stand out just as much as a wolf

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    1. You are going to have a rellay hard time finndig a book on this topic. The only free and legal nonfiction book that is online is the section of the CIA World Factbook. Chances are your local public library or school library also has in paper.Egypt After Mubarak, 2008. by Bruce Rutherford. Amazon has the Kindle version for $ 19.25.

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  37. Thanks for the S-2, guys. I’ ve been off active duty for over twenty years, and like most folks, old habits die hard. Yes I still block all of my hats. I still wear boots, but they seem to have hidden from the Kiwi. As I see it, the best way to dress is not to go overboard in either direction. Don’t dress like an extra for a SWAT team training film, but all tricked out like a super-tourist is too much as well. An old hat, sport shirt, well-worn KMart/WalMart jeans, and Payless sneakers or scuffed-up work boots might help you blend in. An old, beat up gym bag would be ideal as well. Love the site. Lots of excellent information, well thought out, explained in an easy-to understand manner. Keep it up.

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  38. Why isn’t anyone bagging on Under Armour???

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  39. psc live in fire react to contact

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  40. I think i look like a drug addict/bum when traveling internationaly. only giveavway is (yes) a 5.11 backpack faded by oli and the red sand of Africa, though modified. Stripped off all molle and patches. Only disturbance ive ever had is in and out of U.S. beeing stoped at every fucking random checks.

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  41. Since you’re talking about the guys, and their mistakes. I imagine that there are also females working PSD details, maybe not a lot but a few. So how about tips on the new female operative who is going there to be a bodyguard for one of those rich female clients?

    Being female, and having spent time in the military during the 70′s I was wondering what you have observed from the women…

    Cam

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  42. I stumbled upon this article when reading about taking flashlights on aircraft, and let me tell you, you’ve saved me quite a bit of hassles in my near future. I am planning a month long mission trip to Kenya, Burundi, and Swaziland this summer, and with the recent hostilities, I may have made a fatal mistake. I was planning on purchasing a Blackhawk hydration pack to carry my gear in; since this is just a mission trip I didn’t think anything of it. However, after reading this I will no longer buy that backpack. The last thing I want is for me and my team to be mistaken for private contractors or military, a mistake like that could’ve cost many innocent lives. Thanks again for this well written and informative information.

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  43. Excellent article. I wrote about this on my blog. I had traveled to Dubai on a couple of occasions and at the airport it looked like a contractor reunion. Guys seemingly can never let it go and run slick even when they are not running on a detail

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  44. back in the 80′s i was with DOD

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  45. back in the 80′s i was with DOD and we knew about being a grey man. one other thing to mention do not carry U.S. currency. If you are dum enough to wear clothing to say you are an American. then expect what will come your way. i still remember Robert Dean Stethem and what happened to him. We knew that any one of us could get killed like him.

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  46. I blogged about this several months ago explaining the same thing. I landed in Dubai and when I got past the second passport check in I felt I was at a contractor’s convention. The same seems to be prevalent when traveling in CONUS.
    The crazy part is that when I was in the executive lounge and started talking to some of the guys it was then that I found that many of the men and women in tactial gear were in fact not PSD contractors. Some were supply staff of NGO’s that just felt that it was fashion to wear the 5.11 stuff and have blackhawk gear. It was jaw dropping.

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  47. Good article but it is hard to get away from standing out (being a white guy) in a non-white guy country. It doesn’t matter what clothes you wear; people who don’t like white people know where they stay and what their habits are anyways. Even if there are 2 whiteys (one in 5.11 clothes and 1 in a suit) the guys that hate us don’t care what your job is.
    Eric, you are correct in the fact that most people you see in the airports are not PSD. Why did you think that they were?
    How about this one for you; in 2006 on one of my trips from Dubai to Kabul, I was pretty beat from the 1 or 2 nights in Dubai. Well, I took a nap for about 3/4 of the flight to Kabul and I can tell you I was definitely in the minority on that flight.

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  48. A gal gets away with everything. You can hide in plain sight, in Muslim countries you are a greyman(just by being a female). You can hide anything, under a burka.

    Being in shape for a women means you blend in more traveling, as most American women are seen as fat or flamboyant. If you sit in an airport or crowd among the women and smile at children, you are safe almost anywhere.

    You can use travel clothes that are common to an area, if you can understand the language, and say “Yes” “No” “Please” “Thank-you” and “Oh really?” in a passable accent in the local dialect(practice with a local speaker until you get it) Changing clothes for a gal in an airport or even an airplane WC, is not as suspect.

    If you are traveling as a white women, always be from Northern Canada, you are not much of a threat and considered insignificant. I say I am from North America, always true.

    Never wear expensive jewelry, have clip-on earrings(easy on and off), a necklace, a wedding ring and a scarf. You can dress up any outfit with them or remove them to be drab. Use the scarf for many things. The ring keeps men at bay when needed or blends with women and opens up conversations, if needed when removed.

    Use your 5.11 gear to show up the guys at the range at home. Just out shoot them, only the men on your missions should know where you have been or what you have done. They are bigger and stronger (viva la’ difference ) just you get in and get out and none need know it was you.

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    1. Great advice for “greywomen” Sarah – thanks!

      ~James G

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  49. Yeah, I own one tactical artical of clothing that isn’t some old beat up bdu, or just beat up bdu, and that is a 5.11 tdu shirt, but it has no external tag and I got it cuz it looks like a mechanic’s shirt. Other than that work pants short sleeve button up shirts are a favourite of mine, and I wear otb boots, although not any where that they would stand out as too different to fit in.

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  50. Great advice here for the PSC, civilian expat or just tourist who travel off the beaten path. The word grey is interesting too- travelling in large cities in the Northeast U.S. or Europe-you just don’t see a lot of bright colors- leave that yellow golf shirt or orange North Face rain coat at home. Same goes for the NFL/NBA/NCAA team cap or jersey. They are as bad as the 5.11 gear. Call me paranoid, but I travel with a $40.00 Casio and leave my nicer watches at home.

    Depending on the trip, sometimes I pack my more worn but serviceable clothes that are normally destined for donation to a thrift store. I often leave them at the hotel at the tail end of my travels- my bags get lighter as I go and I am not worried about losing these clothes. Depending on the country, your “worn out” polar fleece may last the hotel janitor 10 more years.

    Regardless of background, we are programmed to profile – we take a quick look and fill in the gaps and perhaps due to that, we unconsciously want others who are like us, to be able to identify us, like a tribe. . . Maybe in the back of my brain I am thinking that that rigger’s belt may be the visual cue that lets an foreign LEO know that I’m one of the good guys, but in reality that bit of tactical nylon is more likely to mark me as a threat to the bad guys.

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  51. I have always found it funny how many people dress exactly how you described stateside. Old men in 5-11s and Merrills and 18yo with od Blackhawk bags to carry school books. I have always have thought this screams I started recreational shooting and this makes me look like a tactical stud (for the old gUys), I started paintballing and now I want to look like a tactical stud (for the 18yo), or for the middle ager I am pretending I’m a pm, cop, etc. I especially laugh when I see off duty wearing 5-11s, even harder if they have on the matching tactical shirt. When I used to work plain clothes I wore Timberland boots which provided ankle support and blended in urban areas, jeans, a fLat billed baseball cap, and an oversized dickies work shirt because it blended in my environment and being oversized gave enough room to cover my weapon, cuffs, and vest without it printing. If this is how I work, I never understood why my coworkers would put on 5-11s and look like off duty cops on their days off.
    Then again, I learned the grey principles the hard way as a student studying in Europe. I have several variant I am comfortable dressing and one is as an urban thug. In London I got Id’d at every pub and I got stopped for the random search at every airport or train station checkpoint. For my next round of international travel I found it easier to travel dress as a preppy white boy. Now when I travel I tend to dress like a student and carry all my stuff in a north face or acetyrc backpack and my checked luggage is a Kelly internal frame pack with a collect of European flag patches on it.

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  52. You forgot the side zip CONVERSE BOOTS!!!

    I’ve noticed that most business men traveling internationally wear a sport coat, jeans, white open colar dress shirt, and slip on leather shoes = classy casual.

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  53. s more relaxed culture, where etiquette rules seem to
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  54. Hey I know this is off topic but I waas wondering
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