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New Army Uniform Doesn't Measure Up
Military.com  |  By Eric Coulson  |  April 05, 2007
One of the most visible and high-impact changes adopted by the Army since Operation Iraqi Freedom began has been the fielding of the Army Combat Uniform, or ACU. The new uniform replaces the woodland camo Battle Dress Uniform and the "three color" Desert Combat Uniform.

One of the main goals of the change was to have a uniform that worked in all environments - woodland, desert, and urban - and held up to the rigors of combat duty, as well as the strictures of day-to-day work in garrison.

A great deal of time and money was spent on the development of this new uniform and the Army Program Executive Office Soldier did extensive testing with Soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and at home in the United States.

Considering all the testing the uniform went through, it is surprising such a mediocre product finally emerged.

The Good:

The overall layout and organization of the uniform is good, the pockets are generally more useful and accessible in field gear.

Additionally, adoption of the rough-out boot is sensible from the maintenance and appearance standpoint. Soldiers coming out of the field are not going to be immediately gigged for having unshined boots, and while an old Army tradition may have gone by the wayside, no one really misses shining boots - particularly in the field.

The Bad:

Velcro was a good idea, but the execution was simply lacking. This material is just not ready for combat. Putting anything of size or weight in the pant's cargo pocket will often cause the closure to fail if your Velcro has any wear and tear - which in Iraq, it does. Soldiers risk losing belongings and being chewed out by the nearest NCO for an unsightly appearance.

The addition of Velcro on the sleeves to attach patches was intended to keep a Soldier from spending money modifying uniforms with new patches and skill badges. But this savings has been lost in a couple of ways.

First, patches are much more likely to be lost now that they can be easily removed. And, more obviously, Velcro repair kits are beginning to appear in the exchange shops - a tacit admission the Velcro does not last. Instead of shelling out cash to put new patches on the blouse, Soldiers now have to buy new Velcro to replace the material that failed.

The uniform is also poorly constructed. In more than 10 years of active and reserve service, I never once had a uniform "malfunction." Twice in my tour in Iraq I have had the crotch on my pants rip out. Embarrassment was the least of my worries. Had I not been near the end of a patrol it would have been a serious problem if my vehicle had gone down.

And I am not alone. I've talked to many Soldiers that have had this happen. The data is anecdotal at best, but it sure appears to be a problem.

The material itself is a problem as well. The 50/50 blend of cotton and nylon does not appear to have the staying power or the protection of the old 100% cotton or the Nomex of today's flight suits. In fact, Soldiers and Marines that spend a great deal of time in vehicles in Iraq are being issued tan Nomex flight suits to protect them from the possibility of flash fires in their vehicles. The cotton/nylon blend burns very quickly and can add to the injuries sustained in a burning vehicle by melting to the Soldiers skin.

The Ugly:

The ACU in universal camouflage is just not a very attractive camouflage pattern. Admittedly that's a poor reason to choose such utilitarian clothing; especially if I was convinced that it is a highly effective pattern. But I am not.

The pixilation assists in breaking up the shape of the Soldier - particularly through night vision - but in general, it stands out against anything except a concrete wall.

The pattern also shows every last bit of dirt the Soldier's been exposed to. I never once saw my original BDUs stain like my ACUs have, and I was spending more time rolling around on the ground in my earlier days. Even though the new uniform is supposed to stand up to the rigors of daily wear and tear enough that I don't have to buy separate "field" and "garrison" uniforms, a stained ACU isn't going to work in either environment.

Here are some suggestions to improve and complete the ACU:

A new pattern -- Army PEO Soldier is using a so-called "multicam" pattern in its testing of the Land Warrior system. This is a proven all-environment camouflage. It may stand out a tad more in urban environments, but the likelihood is the Soldier has already been detected. I say just adopt this pattern.

New material -- Use Nomex or some other fire-retardant material instead of the 50/50 cotton-nylon blend. The extra cost of Nomex will be more than made up in savings for the treatment and care of burned Soldiers.

Return to sew on patches and buttons -- Velcro is simply not up to the standard needed for combat. A return to sew on patches would also be a morale booster. Soldiers want to have their skill badges sewn on like they were on the BDU and DCU.

When the ACU was first introduced, I was a big fan. Having lived and worked in the uniform for over in year in various field environments - including combat in Iraq - it is clear the goal has not yet been achieved. With a few changes, the Army can complete the process and ensure today's Soldiers have a top-quality uniform ready to take them into combat.

Eric Coulson is an Army officer commanding an Engineer Company in Iraq. He hosts the Badger 6 Blog.

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