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Matthew Alice:

I am a civilian employee working at 32nd Street Naval Station. The files of deceased service members are referred to as "blue barks." Can you find the history of this name?

-- L. Peacock, Golden Hill

This query is dated July 25, 1997. In the bustling Alice offices, it has its own fat file that documents four years of sleuthing, probing, cajoling, threatening, whimpering-- all the sure-fire research techniques we've always relied on. We even gave the assignment to our elite squadron of CIA-trained elves. They've earned medals for bravery in combat during campaigns to get info from Disneyland and Hollywood film companies. But we finally had to send in the choppers and extract them from this operation. They're not used to losing. It was a pitiful sight. After four years of searching, we've found no one who knows the origin of "blue bark."

So why should we talk about such a bitter defeat at all? First, to let you know that even if you sent us a question in a previous lifetime, there's always a chance we'll decide on some whim or other to finally answer it. Second, because this is officially the most difficult question we've ever received, it deserves some recognition.

"Blue bark," according to the Department of Defense dictionary: "U.S. military personnel, U.S. citizen civilian employees of the [DoD], and the dependents of both categories who travel in connection with the death of an immediate family member. It also applies to designated escorts for [said] dependents. Furthermore, the term is used to designate the personal property shipment of a deceased member." I'll spare you further research details, even though I could make quite a drama out of it, to the point where all of you would feel very sorry for all of us and send chocolate-walnut brownies and large bags of pistachios and money to comfort us in our hour of loss. That little ploy has worked before.

Anyway, one evening not too long ago, while searching for new blind alleys to follow, I chanced upon someone who has first-hand knowledge of how weird military names come about. There is somewhere in the Department of Defense a number of offices that make up names like Operation Constant Vigil (our drug "war") and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)-- the big, official stuff. But there's a lot of military jargon that falls into the category of slang or nicknames and doesn't come out of any DoD office. "Blue bark," it seems, is officially classified as a nickname, even though the concept seems to have no alternative or formal name-- like putting "Fatso" on your kid's birth certificate. I'm told that blue bark is a very old nickname; the origin is lost in time.

To show how some of these names come about, consider my source's story about her husband, who was in charge of contingency planning for a military mission in Central America. One of his jobs was assigning temporary code names to various operations. He named one after the family dog. Imagine one day a military historian puzzling over the origin of Operation Fido. Much like us pursuing "blue bark."

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