Air Force leaders are pushing ahead with plans to outfit
personnel with new combat fatigues, which seems like an innocent enough
Far from it. In fact, a previous attempt to outfit the air troops in new
togs crashed and burned. More on that in a moment.
Right now, nearly 600 personnel at nine Air Force bases are modeling the
tiger-striped utility uniforms of blue, gray and green.
The fatigues not only look and feel good, according to Air Force brass,
but they're made of a more durable wash-and-wear material. This saves time --
and potentially saves the wearer $180 to $240 each year on dry cleaning.
The new design also would give the Air Force a distinctive look. Airmen
now wear the same woodland-pattern fatigues the Army uses -- too much of a
reminder, it seems, that the air service was once part of the ground service.
"We wanted something that was uniquely Air Force," spokeswoman Jennifer
Assuming the "wear test" goes well, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen.
John Jumper, could designate the tiger stripes as standard gear by the end of
the year, Stephens said.
To understand how controversial changing uniforms can be, take the
catwalk back to the era of the Air Force's "Manly Man."
In October 1990, Gen. Merrill McPeak took over as chief of staff. A
hard-charging fighter pilot, McPeak wanted the Air Force to become the
dominant military service branch.
In pursuit of that vision, McPeak wanted the Air Force organized around,
and run by, fighter pilots like him. For those who flew bombers and cargo
aircraft, this was a bitter pill to swallow.
McPeak thought changes in appearance were needed, so he ordered a
redesign of the blue dress uniform. Among the most significant changes,
epaulets were removed and rank insignia was put on the sleeve.
If McPeak's goal was to be distinctive, he scored. The result was a cross
between what a bus driver and an airline pilot would wear. One officer
privately complained he looked like Ralph Kramden.
Perhaps McPeak's most controversial move, however, was to ban the wearing
of crew neck T-shirts under the open-necked, light-blue uniform blouse. McPeak
thought the combination was unkempt. V- neck tees were acceptable.
For rank-and-file airmen, however, this was more of McPeak's machismo run
A series of underground "brown papers" began circulating inside the
Pentagon poking fun at the general. In them, his reforms were mocked as "The
Emergence of the Manly Man."
"What this type of undershirt hides is the amount of chest hair of the
USAF member," one paper says of the crew-neck decision. "The implication, of
course, is that the more chest hair, the better."
McPeak retired in November 1994. His replacement, Gen. Ronald Fogleman,
wasted little time in reversing many fashion decisions.
No doubt aware of the previous backlash, Jumper has said feedback from
the troops is essential before a change is made. The Air Force will establish
a Web site soon so airmen can offer opinions.
Although far from scientific or official, an informal Internet poll of
more than 600 Air Force officer candidates found close to 30 percent "love" or
"like" the new fatigues; a whopping 50 percent said they "hate" the new tiger
stripes or would wear them only if they must. The final 20 percent weren't
"Nothing is set in stone," Stephens said. "We don't want to make changes
if the airmen don't want them."
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