SAVANNAH - The Army wants to halt a favorite St. Patrick's Day shenanigan in Savannah that for decades has left marching soldiers with cheeks smeared in bright red lipstick.
Roughly 200 soldiers from nearby Fort Stewart plan to take part in the March 17 parade, which organizers say could draw 500,000 or more revelers to Georgia's oldest city. Savannah's Irish immigrants and their descendants have marched on St. Patrick's Day since 1824. The sprawling celebration is now one of the South's largest street parties after Mardi Gras.
As the parade winds around Savannah's oak-shaded squares, women in the crowd traditionally slather on red lipstick as they wait for the uniformed troops to approach in formation among kilt-wearing pipe bands and floats pulled by shamrock-decorated pickup trucks. Then they dart into the street to plant messy kisses on the soldiers' faces.
But Fort Stewart commanders and organizers of the Savannah parade want the soldier smooching to stop. Parade adjutants posted along the route are being asked to help turn back any would-be kissing bandits.
"They need to look like soldiers when they march, they need to look professional," Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson said Thursday. "It's hard to look professional as a soldier with red lipstick on your cheeks. Red lipstick is not part of the uniform."
Kissing the troops, Irish or not, has been a St. Patrick's Day pastime in Savannah for at least 40 years.
Brian Counihan, chairman of the Savannah parade's organizing committee, said he recalled seeing it when he marched in the parade in the 1970s as a teenage cadet from Benedictine Military School.
"It was sporadic, a few of your girlfriends and your moms would run out," Counihan said. "In the last six or eight years, it's come to a point where the military's almost halted. ... It's a fun thing, but it's gotten out of hand."
Counihan, a deputy commander for the local sheriff's department, said having random spectators dash up to the moving parade raises safety and security concerns. Organizers also want to avoid any appearance of sexual misconduct at a time when the #MeToo movement has heightened awareness.
"People can take it the wrong way," Counihan said. "Somebody could run up and grab an individual and it could be considered sexual harassment if it's done improperly."
It's not unusual for organizers to make tweaks to the parade to promote safety. Throwing beads and candy from floats was banned long ago in Savannah. Police a few years ago added barricades along parts of the route to keep spectators out of the streets.
The Army and the parade committee aren't seeking penalties for any parade watchers who slip through and land an illicit kiss.
"We can't control other people's behavior," Larson said. "We're simply asking them to police themselves and do right by our soldiers."