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Arrival Of New Clothing Like Christmas
By Steve Liewer
Stars and Stripes
European Edition

March 3, 2004

CAMP NEW YORK, Kuwait Had they seen stockings and a tree, Task Force 1-77 soldiers might have thought Santa had just arrived.

Hundreds of troops at Camp New York woke up before dawn last week, marched through the sand to a giant warehouse tent near the front gate, and lined up to grab their long-promised new gear.

They passed by table after table, picking up new shirts, long underwear, summer and winter boots, fleece wear, knee and elbow pads, and vests.

"It was like Christmas," said 1st Lt. Jason Royston, 24, of Ada, Okla., an officer with the 9th Engineer Battalion currently attached to Task Force 1-77.

The clothing came on top of a new assault bag, rifle scopes, battle-axes and other essential soldier tools delivered to their tents the night before. And more is to come: Each soldier is scheduled to receive up to 37 new items, depending on his or her job, said Maj. Chad Ochs, 39, of Hamilton, Mont., the 1st Infantry Division's force management officer.

All are part of the Army's Rapid Fielding Initiative, giving soldiers the latest in battle clothing and fighting gear. Ochs said the 1st ID is spending about $28 million to equip two 2,000-man brigade combat teams it is sending to Iraq, plus another $7 million on a smaller package of gear for support troops.

The initiative started two years ago, when troops in Afghanistan found much of their equipment didn't stand up well under the rigors of a long, hard deployment in harsh conditions. Flush with cash post-Sept. 11, 2001, the Defense Department decided to spend some of it to better equip the forces fighting the war on terror.

"The Army had gone along for a long time modernizing its big systems," Ochs said, "but the individual soldier had kind of lagged behind. We're playing catch up."

Before leaving Germany, soldiers had received several items, such as their Wiley X desert goggles, Sonic earplugs and Camelbak water-carrying backpacks.

Last week, they got fireproof Nomex gloves, Air Force boots that are both lighter weight and more durable than what they were wearing, silk-like long underwear and long-sleeved T-shirts that push moisture away from the body on hot summer days, and new vests that carry gear comfortably in pouches instead of on straps.

Soldiers with the 1st ID have been happily bewildered by the Army's generosity. Many say they are used to receiving used or outdated equipment, if anything, when they deploy.

"It's pretty unusual. You never get stuff like this," said Sgt. Brett Steen, 23, of Spring Hill, Fla., an infantryman from Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment. "It's pretty up-to-date stuff."

Much of the gear had previously been issued only to elite troops.

"A lot of it, the SF [Special Forces] guys ran around with it, or the Rangers," Royston said. "It's lighter than what we had, and it works better."

Soldiers had been told the gear was coming, but many were skeptical. As they are accustomed to doing, they dipped into their own pockets to buy gear. Royston said some of his men spent $150 to $800 on new rifle sights.

"If I'd known they were going to give it to us, I wouldn't have spent $200 on gear," said Spc. Isaac McMillan, 23, of Oklahoma City, also with the 9th Engineers.

The two most popular items were the boots and the vests.

"The boots are by far the best thing," said 1st Lt. Edgar Pulley, 25, of San Gabriel, Calif., a platoon leader for Company C, 1-26 Infantry. "They feel like tennis shoes. You can actually walk for miles in the desert."

Soldiers say the vests, with their custom pouches for items such as ammunition and grenades, carry the soldiers' heavy load much better than the old system of straps.

"It's well-balanced. It proportions the weight on your body," said Staff Sgt. Kevin King, 24, of Royal Oak, Mich., also from Company C, 1-26 Infantry. "[The gear] is up on your chest instead of around your sides."

"It even has little pockets where you can put your forceps," said Spc. Michael Miranda, 21, of Roma, Texas, a medic with the 1st ID's 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery.

Christmas in the Middle East isn't over just yet. Still on order, Ochs said, are new Kevlar helmets that are lighter, better-padded and reshaped so troops can wear them when firing their weapons from the prone position. They are due within the next few weeks.

"We'll be like James Bond in those Kevlars," Pulley said.

Steve Liewer is an embedded journalist with the 1st Infantry Division, Task Force 1-77.

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This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Copyright 2004 Stars and Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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