21 February 2010

Achieving and Maintaining Uniform-ity

Since I entered Army in 1988, I've worn approximately 4 different uniforms for my country. According to news reports this weekend, I might be issued yet one more version before I retire.

For my version of basic training, I was issued the nearly out-of-service "utility" uniform: plain olive-drab polyester and black boots. The undershirt was brown, the blouse was tucked into the trouser, the trouser was tucked into the top of the black boot. The "ballcap" was no longer available for issue, however, and we were given woodland-camouflage patrol caps--the same as would be worn with the Battle Dress Uniform.

The Battle Dress Uniform (B.D.U.) was woodland camouflage pattern. The front of the blouse featured four square-bottomed pockets, the bottom two of which were never used. (In the field, your Load Carrying Equipment, which included a wide nylon-mesh pistol belt--wouldn't have allowed bottom-pocket access anyway.) The top left pocket had a hold in it, allegedly for placing one pen or pencil--provided the pen could not be seen.

The sleeves of the BDU could be worn rolled up during warm months. When you fell into the first formation of the day, you needed to be the same as the first sergeant--sleeves-up or sleeves-down. Army soldiers rolled their sleeves so that the woodland pattern covered the rolled portion of the sleeve. The Marines rolled their sleeves so the solid-colored underside of the fabric showed was exposed. That, and the special cut of the Marine patrol cap, were the two major differences between the Army and Marine duty uniform.

In 1989-1990, my father's Air Force Reserve unit was called up for Operation Desert Shield. He was flying on a C-130, the same type of aircraft he rode around Vietnam. During this duty, he was issued a couple of Desert Battle Dress Uniform (D.B.D.U.)--the same "chocolate-chip cookie dough" camouflage pattern then used by the U.S. Army.

While I still one of Papa Sherpa's DBDUs, I was never issued them. Instead, when I deployed for the first time in 2003, my buddies and I were issued the "coffee stain" camouflage of the Desert Combat Uniform (D.C.U.). (The unit we were relieving, however, told us a bunch of hooey about laundry services downrange being substandard, and that we'd better request uniforms one or two sizes larger than usual, because they'd either shrink or be shrunk for us. That, however, is another war story ...) We were also issued the buff-colored no-polish-required (!) desert boots.

When we returned from our deployment, we turned in all but one of our DCUs, and went back to wearing woodland camouflage pattern BDUs and black boots.

The Army decided to transition to the Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.) effective March, I think, of 2009. The ACU is a much lighter material than the winter-weight BDU, DBDU, and DCU. (Sometimes, there were "summer" or "tropical" weight uniforms available in those patterns, but they typically didn't wear as long, and weren't worth the effort.) Someone once read somewhere that the Army figures a set of ACU is only supposed to last about 6 months before wearing out. The Velcro (that's a trademark, I realize--the generic term would be "hook-and-loop fastener") certainly will wear out in that time.

There are lots of pockets in all the right places on the ACU, particularly if you're wearing body armor--which, face it, you should be, if you're downrange. The pockets are kept closed with more of that hook-and-loop tape--much easier to get in and out of than the button-flap BDU-style pockets. Instead of sewn-on rank, name tape, and patches, all the "who am I" stuff is also affixed to the ACU with hook-and-loop tape. I joke that, when the Army switched from BDU to ACU, you should've sold your stock in black boot polish (no longer used in the age of the buff-colored desert boot), and bought stock in the makers of hook-and-loop.

Oh, and, with the ACU, soldiers are no longer allowed to iron, press, or starch the duty uniform--rough and unpressed is part of the camouflage. And--get this--one must take extreme care to launder the ACU with non-brightening detergents. Otherwise, one can compromise the camouflage characteristics of the fabric. I kid you not, I have to take more care washing my uniforms than any other category of the family's laundry.

For all of its usual stress upon uniformity, however--that everyone should be dressed and equipped in the same way--the Army has been forced into a more casual attitude during the transition to ACU. Depending on their mission, their unit, and what was in stock at the time, guys and gals going downrange would be issued a mix of woodland camouflage, olive drab, desert tan, and ACU "sage green" or "digi-cam" pattern (the camouflage looks "digital," like the squarish pixels on a computer screen). No one looked uniform, because their were simply too many uniforms. In fact, at one point in the supply chain, wearing desert boots with the BDU was authorized, because one couldn't order black boots in the system any longer. While functional, it did NOT look cool.

Besides if you mix camouflage patterns, you probably aren't camouflaged any more. Any hunters out there can probably back me up on this.

That's all recently changed, of course, With my unit's preparations for deployment, we're getting a lot of "new" equipment and clothing. Most everything for which I've signed (more than $3,000 worth) and now stored in my wall locker at the unit armory (other than the basic uniform, soldiers aren't supposed to take their equipment home with them), is now the new camouflage pattern. I might still have a woodland helmet cover, but I expect to get a new digi-cam cover when I am issued a new-style helmet.

The official name for the ACU camouflage pattern, by the way, is "Universal Camouflage Pattern," or "U.C.P." Occasionally, you'll also hear it referred to as "ARPAT," for "Army Pattern." If you hear it called this, you'll also likely hear a conversation or argument about who went to "digi-cam" first, the Marines or the Army. The Marines and Army no longer share woodland camouflage pattern as a common thread. Instead, the Marines have "MARPAT" (for "Marine Pattern"), available in woodland, desert, and urban color schemes. If any Marine wants to dust up about who-had-it-first, have them tell it to the Canadians. (Our neighbors to the U.S. north had "Canadian Disruptive Pattern"--"CADPAT"--years before the Marines. I first encountered CADPAT when indirectly working for a Canadian general back in 2003.)

Soldiers are of mixed opinion when it comes to the three-color UCP of the ACU. (Acronyms!) It's lighter in color, so it becomes visibly soiled more easily. (With the woodland BDU, you could spill coffee on yourself without embarrassment.) It's a good pattern for in the sandy desert, urban environments, and the occasional mauve-and-mint upholstery from the 1980s. (Click here for the classic Internet photo of the latter, although I once personally witnessed the visual disappearance of a party of lunching combat engineers upon being seated at a particular diner in Fairfield, Iowa.)

So, why all this Operation Project Runway retrospective, you ask? Because Uncle Sam has apparently taken criticisms of the ACU from troops deployed to Afghanistan to heart, and will be issuing a new, MARPAT-like "MultiCam" version of the ACU to troops deploying to Afghanistan, starting late summer 2010. (The Army has been conducting a four-month test of the new pattern.) My unit is slated to deploy in a similar timeframe.

The change shouldn't be as dramatic or drastic as going from woodland to UCP. Instead, it will most likely involve the introduction of a fourth color ("coyote") to the three-color UCP. Click here for a comparison chart.

Personally, I'm hoping the troops who are Doing the Job, on the Front Line, at the proverbial Tip of the Spear get the "good" uniforms. After all, Sherpa's probably got himself an in-the-rear-with-the-gear job.

In other words, he'll blend in, regardless.


  1. Velcro. Probably the greatest innovation in the fastener industry in the 20th century. Great recap of the history of the uniforms.
    Personally, I'm aggrieved over the rather unfashionable dress blues. I think it should be done over on an episode of Project Runway. I hate the pants. My bet is that Seth Aaron would kick ass in the challenge. Too bad they let Ping go. She would have been fun.

  2. I have bits and pieces of each type some where in the "TA-50" closet where all of the husbands military stuff goes. I am always finding a bit of something here or there so one closet that contains his stuff and only his stuff works great!!! Although I have avoided clothing sales...do they still pre-stained brown underwear?? LOL

  3. I'm still hording about 12 sets of woodland camouflage BDU, along with a couple of brown T-shirts. Not quite sure what to do with them all. Even the Air Force is going away from woodland, so the prices down at the surplus store are going down--I don't know whether they'll even take them. I don't paintball or hunt. I suppose I could keep them in case I join the Civil Air Patrol after retirement ...

    Any ideas?

  4. Just sent Kanani a note regarding Fashion Week in Pakistan. I thought I'd post the link here for anyone else who may be as interested (fluent?) in Project Runway as they are in Operation Enduring Freedom:


  5. What is it with fashionable-war news today? Slate Magazine features a slide show depicting and describing how we Westerners culturally code the color pink (full link: http://www.slate.com/id/2245052/). Included is this factoid about camouflaging WWII battleships pink to match the sunset/sunrise:

    "Perhaps the oddest manifestation of a powerful British pink is Mountbatten pink, a grayish-mauve shade of camouflage used by Adm. Louis Mountbatten of the British Royal Navy in 1940. Intended to match the roseate sky just before dawn or at dusk, Mountbatten pink took its most iconic form in the HMS Kenya, 'the Pink Lady.' Battling Germans off the Norwegian coast, one battle raged pinkly as few battles ever did: The Germans' pink marker-dye, used to target shelling, matched the Pink Lady's hull so well that they were firing more at their own shells than at the ship.

    Sadly, the era of carnation-colored destroyers ended abruptly in 1942 due to an unfortunate snag: As soon as the sun fully rose or set, the big pink ships lost their camouflage, leaving them brilliantly visible on the horizon."

    Anybody else remember the movie Operation Petticoat, in which Cary Grant plays the captain to a pink submarine?


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