Submitted by Eric Daniel, photo by Michael Yon
News flash folks – The Army has decided to review the suitability and utility of the “new” ACU camouflage pattern for the fighting in Afghanistan (This is old news to the folk in the SF community – They were granted an exemption a year ago to wear the old BDUs in place of the ACU in select theaters) and now they’re going to outfit two battalions with new camouflage uniforms. But there’s nothing in the report that mentions correcting any of the more egregious faults with the construction of the ACU uniform itself.
While I was mulling over this tidbit, I came across an interesting photograph. It was a picture of some British soldiers returning from a patrol in Afghanistan. What caught my eye was the number of “uniform violations” I saw. Folks with their sleeves rolled up, some not wearing helmets, some with trousers bloused, some not, and the greatest infraction of them all, mixed uniforms!! Can you believe it!! There were soldiers, exposed to public scrutiny and ridicule, appearing in uniform items of different colors!!
Wow…. The irony of it all though is, I know there are folk out there saying exactly that, and I think this is where the Army is really going to miss the boat on this whole uniform redesign thing; the issue isn’t so much what color we make the uniform (though that is important), but just what exactly makes a combat uniform in the first place, and exactly how important “uniformity” (i.e. our fixation on wear and appearance) is in combat.
Firstly, let me say that I realize and fully endorse the idea that we need uniforms. Besides helping to tell friend from foe, the Geneva Convention also requires it. Secondly, I think Rumsfeld was right in that you fight with the army (or in this case the uniform) you have, not the one you want. Thirdly, with that having been said, I think the Army needs to practice what it preaches regarding unit esprit de corps and readiness – a unit with high esprit de corps, cohesion, and morale will modify and personalize its equipment to meet individual and mission needs, which means taking the uniform you have and making it get the job done.
Why did those British soldiers look the way they did? Because someone in their food chain used their brain and made some tactical decisions regarding “uniformity” and mission accomplishment. The British don’t have a “one color works nowhere” uniform like we do; they have a green one and a tan one. The problem is, they don’t operate in an area that’s uniformly green or tan, so in order to bust up their signature they mix the tops and bottoms. I’m sure the decision to allow that was made at either the company or battalion (i.e. local) level, whereas for us (in the U.S. Army) such decisions are usually reserved for TRADOC.
Why were their trousers unbloused? Because it’s frikkin hot, that’s why. I don’t know why the Army blouses its trousers (the story most commonly told is it originated with the paratroopers during WWII, who did it to provide additional storage space for things like socks and medical bandages) but in combat, blousing or not should be at the discretion of the soldier, for thermoregulatory purposes only. If you’re hot, open em up and let some air in. If it’s cold and windy, tie them off, but for God’s sake, let the soldier decide; calling back to Regiment to see if the wet bulb temperature warrants a unit-wide modification to the uniform is just silly (and for the record, I know there are some units out there that are actually combat minded and will make these decisions at the local level, I’ve just never served in one.)
The same applies to your sleeves. Will the world come to a screeching halt, or will he become completely combat ineffective if Joe rolls his sleeves up a little to let some air in? Or maybe he just wants to keep them out of his food, or out of the filth that he’s currently searching. How many Americans have lost their lives from sleeve placement, and yet it is a “point of emphasis” in Army uniform regulation enforcement.
The U.S. Army is all about force protection, and that means you wear as much armor as you possibly can, always. You never take your armor off (well except when you’re doing PT, because body armor isn’t part of the authorized PT uniform) and you most assuredly never appear in public without it. When last I was in Iraq we had to go to Kuwait to pick up some equipment. Division uniform policy at the time required that we would wear full kit when ever we were in theater, so while folk were wandering the PX in shorts, flip flops and Hawaiian shirts, there we were in 50 pounds of body armor looking like a bunch of wallies. But we were safe!! Yes, I understand that the warfare there is non-linear, and you can be attacked at any moment (for the record, our camp was rocketed almost daily yet in the year I was there we sustained no casualties) but you need to weigh the risk of hypothetical injury from a hypothetical attack with the real fatigue and discomfort caused by wearing all that crap all the time. If Joe wants to shed his armor and dome of obedience inside the wire, let him. Oh, if only the U.S. Army had the same faith in the decision making capabilities of its soldiers that it seems the MoD has in its.
Well, as long as we’re on the subject of the Army’s new combat uniform color, while I laude the Army for looking into a more effective camouflage pattern, a new color is only half the problem. What we need is a uniform that was built with combat in mind, not power point presentations.
The velcro has got to go. I don’t know what idi…individual came up with this idea, but it is the worst of the worst. Velcro just has no place on a combat uniform. As I understand it, the rational behind adopting the velcro for pocket closures and patch placement was to eliminate the issue of lost buttons, facilitate securing the sleeve cuffs, and to save soldiers a couple bucks when they PCS. Well, paying $2/patch every 3 years when you PCS (to sew on a different unit patch) is a small price to pay when compared to buying an entire uniform (remember, you can’t mis-match uniforms of different “ages”, so if you’ve got a faded uniform top with worn velcro, you can’t just buy a new top) just to replace an ACU top that has had the velcro pile “patches” wear out. Moreover, while I’ve never lost a sew on U.S. ARMY tape low crawling in BDUs I have lost them, as well as that all important full color American flag, crawling around in ACUs. This becomes a real mission critical issue when uniform conscious leaders identify the discrepancy and render you NMC until you acquire a replacement (naturally, a squared away soldier carries a pack of replacement unit patches, rank, and name tapes for just such an emergency, but the point is, we didn’t used to have to.)
Velcro is also noisy. Now, I’ve not done any scientific acoustical analysis, nor do I have any data to evaluate how many friendly positions were given away by the noise created by opening a velcro pocket, but coming from a noise and light disciplined oriented organization, I absolutely cringe with terror at the phrase “prepare to copy” because the next thing you hear is a patrol base wide “RIIIIIP” as everyone rips open their pocket to get their notebook out. The bottom line here is, is the noise created by opening velcro pockets a tactical liability? I don’t know, but it sure as hell makes a lot more noise than buttons.
Speaking of buttons, velcro is a poor substit
ute for them. I don’t know about the rest of you, but trying to peel that tiny velcro flap on the ACU chest pockets is a real pain, especially with gloves on. The same applies to the sleeve pockets as well. More often than not, if I want to access these pockets I need to use both hands; one to pull open the pocket, and the other to pull back on my uniform to compensate for the friction of the velcro (that is until the velcro wears out or packs with mud, whereupon the pockets won’t close at all.) Better that we’d retained the buttons (and I would have made them larger, to be easier to manipulate with gloves on.) Finally, it’s an easy enough thing to replace missing buttons in the field (yes, a squared away Joe carries a sewing kit with him) but it’s flat out imposable to replace worn, torn, or frayed velcro anywhere.
It’s a combat uniform, not a prom dress. How a combat uniform looks is important, I believe, but only from a mission accomplishment perspective, not a social perspective. Combat uniforms should have pockets, and those pockets should be large and capable of carrying large bulky items, even if they do make you look “poofy.” The original issue BDUs had large pockets on the blouse and on the trouser thighs, and these pockets were equipped with expandable bellows sides (as well as drain holes) but as time went on, the pockets got smaller and thinner until you got to the point that folk were cutting off the pockets off all together and just sewing pocket faces back on.
When I first got to Iraq in 2004 many of us cut the bottom pockets off our DCU blouses and sewed them on to the bicep. While this provided us with access to a large pocket that would have otherwise been unavailable (covered by our body armor) as a sharp eyed and uniformity conscious CSM pointed out, that modification was not only not authorized but it didn’t look professional, and looks are everything (go take a look at pictures of all those uniformly dressed paratroopersfrom WWII. How such an undisciplined and unprofessional appearing fighting force such as this, which would go into combat with unauthorized uniform modifications, ever beat the Nazis is beyond me.)
While the ACU pockets aren’t that bad, they certainly don’t have the same utility as the original BDUs (with the old BDUs you could put a complete MRE in the pocket and close it up, you can’t do that with the ACUs). For starters, the calf and bicep pockets are simply worthless. The calf pocket is tiny and down by your boot, which means it’s exposed to possible immersion in water or mud, so whatever you put in there had better be water and shock-proof. The bicep pocket is small (one of the reasons they made the pockets slanted was to make them easier to get your hand in. It also helps if you actually make the pocket big enough to get your hand in in the first place.) and with all that velcro on it, it’s a pain in the ass to open. In order for me to open that pocket I need to grip the cuff of the sleeve with the pocket I want to open, just to create enough resistance to get the pocket to open.)
Does having large pockets mean you have to walk about 24/7 looking like a corn-fed chipmunk? Of course not, but it sure as hell would be nice to have the capability if you needed it. Moreover, I don’t think it would be such a bad idea to re-introduce the large bellows pockets on the bottom portion of the uniform blouse. Yes, I know, we wear body armor now, so those pockets are covered up, but that armor also covers up the top pockets we retained, and again, I’d rather have them and not use them, than want them and not have them; that or increase the length of the blouse and make it more like a safari jacket, where the bottom pockets are below the body armor.
As mentioned previously, buttons are great for closing up pockets, and we should have never gotten rid of them. In fact, we could probably have made the pocket ones a little larger to make them easier to use with gloves on (I remember seeing old pictures of 1980′s era Canadians. They had huge single buttons on their pockets, which allowed them to manipulate them with mittens on.) The same can be said with respect to the zipper they use on the ACU blouse now. Yes, it makes it easy to get on and off, and this can be a boon to medical personnel trying to get access to a casualty’s wounds, but Joe is just plain screwed if the zipper breaks; he has to replace the entire top rather than sew on a new button.
One item for which I catch a lot of flack, is my belt, or lack thereof. I don’t wear one. In its place I wear suspenders, and by suspenders I mean the riveted in, six button type suspenders, not those willie foo foo ones you use with your wet weather pants at the wash rack. Wearing suspenders is a habit I picked up as a wildland firefighter for the USFS. Between cutting line, running a chainsaw, or being on a southern California hillside where the temperature of the water in my canteen is 108, I found suspenders to be a significant improvement over a belt. Not only do they keep your pants up, but they don’t constrict the fabric at your waist, which allows for a good flow of air, and it allows debris which may have fallen down your shirt to fall through your trouser legs, which can prevent chafing or similar friction related injuries. While I’m not saying that suspender use should be mandatory, it should be a viable option in any combat uniform we select, which means the buttons should be built in.
I am told they made the ACU baggier than the BDUs but I don’t recall ever tearing out the crotch on my BDUs while now I can’t go six months without tearing one out in the ACU. Combat uniforms should be baggy, everywhere, not just in the legs. Remember the old issue OD-green field pants with liner and parka? Well those days are gone, and all you have now is your uniform and your Gortex, so your clothes have to be cut large enough to accommodate the additional layers you’re going to be wearing in the winter to keep warm on patrol.
So, while evaluating a new color for our combat uniform is all good and well, I wish the Army would also take the time to stop and think about functionality of the uniform it was slapping that color on.