I grew up in the twilight world of the Military Brat. I wasn’t in the military myself, but because I was raised in that culture I have far more in common with them than I do with civilians. 40 years later I frequently pepper my speech with things I heard my father say when I was a kid.
When you’re writing about the military don’t forget that it casts a very long shadow. There’s two sets of acronyms. The first is the most common, used by active duty personnel while at work. It includes very specific terms to describe a weapon, a base, a plane etc. – you can find a ton of lists like this for all branches.
I’ve tried to focus on the second set, which is either used by active duty personnel when they’re off duty / off base, or by people who associate with active duty personnel (parent, spouse, child etc.). Rather than describing a specific weapon or machine, the majority of phrases in the second set are situational (“SNAFU” is a great personal favorite).
Please keep in mind a few truths about military speech – strong language is a given, and the phrases are often extremely misogynistic. I’ve done my best to avoid the latter, but if you’re writing in a military environment be aware it’s just par for the course. Even females will use anti-female terms if applied to someone who is thought to be weaker than themselves. For example “BIB” would be the “Bitch in Back”. It can refer to a female copilot or to a whiny / weak male copilot while on base. Off base “BIB” might describe a nagging wife, girlfriend, mother or daughter.
Edit: My darlin’ Father added clarification to a few of these – thanks Dad!
ACC – for example, this is one that Dad clarified. I grew up in the era of TAC/SAC (see below). The last base Dad was stationed at was Langley Field in Virginia. As of 1992 TAC/SAC merged to become Air Combat Command, which is one of the 10 major commands in the USAF. Wow. No more TAC/SAC? The horror!! Anyway, if your story is set before 1992 use TAC/SAC. After – use ACC and carry on.
AFU – All fucked up – pronounced “Alpha Foxtrot Uniform”
AWOL – Absent Without Leave. Civilian application = someone who isn’t home / where they ought to be when they said they’d be.
Bag of Balls / Penguin – a plane that’s always broken. Civilian application – a lemon. When calling about a car in the shop, it might be: “How’s the Penguin?” “Tango Uniform”.
Barn – hangar. Hangars can be used for many things, so for example a “barn dance” is any recreational gathering held for a lot of people in an unused hangar
BFE – ‘Bum Fuck Egypt.’ Refers to a remote base. In civilian speak, it means “middle of nowhere”
BLQ / BOQ – Bachelor Living Quarters / Bachelor Officer Quarters – this one’s important! This is where most of the cute and available guys are concentrated, also where the majority of trouble starts (either there or the O Club)
Bingo – very low / close to zero, usually applied to fuel level. Bingo Fuel = just enough fuel to get home. Though when used by civilians in casual conversation it could be “out of gas” as well.
BX – Base Exchange – it’s sort of like the base Walmart. The entire family would use this one easily. This is “PX” in the Army.
Clusterfuck – this one is commonly used by civilians, but in the military it usually refers to one of two specific events – either the superior officer really screwed up, resulting in mission failure / punishment for all, or a woman is involved. (sorry, sad but true usage)
Commissary – that’s the base grocery store. Here’s some info on the BX / Commisary places a military spouse / family would know about.
Dipsy Doodle – this is when a pilot climbs to altitude, then suddenly dives for quick acceleration – usually to go supersonic. I include this one because any kid who hears it adores the term, and they’ll use it for all sorts of things. My brother and I called pill bugs “Dipsy Doodles” later shortened to “Doodle Bugs” just for the hell of it. The last time I heard it, a guy with a motorcycle was describing riding on a very hilly road so fast that his butt left the seat a few times.
DOE – Date of Enlistment – this is important for any number of reasons – most have to do with pay or when you get out. This is one of the terms a spouse would be very aware of.
Doolie – A freshman attending the USAFA.
Doolie Lookout – usually a balcony or other place where a parent can spy on a couple out on a date
Double Aught Dark – midnight (fwiw, “aught” sounds like “ought” with a sort of flat “ah” sound at the beginning)
FRED – Fucking Ridiculous Economic Disaster – It has a specific usage for military personnel, but for a military family / spouse this term can have some very creative usage.
FUBAR – Fucked Up Beyond All Reason
GMT – Greenwich Mean Time (see “Zulu”)
Grub Steak – this isn’t always present, but on several of the bases I was at, it’s sort of a military 7-11. Without Slurpies.
HUAW – Hurry Up and Wait
KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – never said aloud, but written in notes
NCO – Non-commissioned Officer – this is often a source of confusion outside military families.
O Club – Officer’s club – imagine a strange hybrid of a really run down country club and a bank.
OIC – Officer in Command – often a nickname applied to a military spouse
OTS – Officer Training School – this is different from Basic, just for officers.
PICNIC – Problem In Chair, Not In Computer; Used by help desk personnel to indicate user ignorance. This is the military version of PIBKAC (problem is between keyboard and chair – in other words, the user)
RTB – Return To Base – civilian application, “Go home”
SAC – Strategic Air Command – big rivalry with TAC. Use this term if your story is set before 1992.
SNAFU – Situation Normal All Fucked Up
TAC – Tactical Air Command – big rivalry with SAC. Use this term if your story is set before 1992.
TDY – Temporary Duty. This is when someone is assigned to another base short-term – say a couple of weeks, maybe for specialized training. One of the most common phrases I heard growing up.
Tango Uniform = “Tits Up” = “it’s broken” civilian application “How’s the car?” “Tango Uniform” (you’d say “tits up” if not in mixed company, in other words if your superior or children aren’t present – used by mixed genders around mixed genders)
USAFA – this wouldn’t actually be used or spoken by anyone normally, but it’s the official abbreviation of the United States Air Force Academy. If you have a character referring to it, they’d say “the Academy”, “The Zoo” (most common) or maybe even “C Springs”, but this is how they’d write it, and know what they’re talking about.
Zoo – Nickname for the Air Force Academy, home of the Doolie
Zulu – Standardized clock setting where all military clocks are set to the same time – usually corresponds with GMT
Also, if you’re writing military, be sure to know your phonetic alphabet! You wouldn’t say something like ATB – you’d say Alpha Tango Bravo.