5 Tips for Cleaning Military Uniforms

Clean laundry is ready for pick up thanks to U.S. Army Reserve laundry and bath Soldiers from the 275th Quartermaster Battalion, Fort Pickett, Va. (U.S. Army/Timothy L. Hale)
Clean laundry is ready for pick up thanks to U.S. Army Reserve laundry and bath Soldiers from the 275th Quartermaster Battalion, Fort Pickett, Va. (U.S. Army/Timothy L. Hale)

Because camouflage doesn't clean itself and, for reasons I don't understand (and, for the record, don't like), the 'don't touch my gear' rule seems to apply to everything but the dirty cammies or military uniforms.

Those piles of cammies on top of the laundry bin? In the garage? Piling up near the washing machine? "Honey, can you just run a load...?"

And for a long time my answer was "no." (Judge away.) I was a working woman myself and I didn't see him running loads of my blouses or taking my heels to the cobbler, so it just sort of seemed fair. You do your laundry, I'll do mine. And as every spouse ever knows, that really means: You do some of your laundry, I'll do all of mine, all of the house stuff, all of the kids', and part of yours.

Meet my husband's laundry bin. I'm not even sure what it is that's hanging out of it, but all I know is it needs some serious de-funking. The room kind of does too, now. And so eventually that meant cammies.

Now I should tell you. I come from a long line of military spouses. And for every store of greatness and bravery, I've heard 80 other stories about uniforms ruining prom dresses, evening gowns, wedding dresses, christening gowns and every other important piece of fabric you can think of. After a particularly awful laundry incident involving a yellow dress and a load of Army greens on hot day, my grandfather wasn't allowed to do his uniforms at home at all. Ever.

But I've been worn down by the piles of laundry and the general smell of sweat and dirt and gunpowder and Marine-ness and whatever else is built into those things, and so, for the overall sake of a happy, clean-ish home, I've given in. I'm cleaning uniforms.

And thanks to your help on our Facebook page, we now have five tips to pass on for how to do that well. I.e.: In such a way that the washing machine and the laundry both smell clean when they're done. *claps hands for miraculous feats of cleanliness and military spouse genius*

Here's your best advice on how to wash military uniforms.

1: Meet Vinegar, Your New Best Friend

"I wash all his cammies, skivvies, and socks in vinegar and it works great!," says Mikka. So how do you use vinegar in your washing machine? While the uniforms are soaking, add a cup of white vinegar and let them soak for awhile. If you have a top-loader, you can just leave the top open for a half hour and let the vinegar do its magic. If you have a front-loader, your washing machine probably has an "extra soak" option. Using that, add the vinegar directly the basin and then wash as normal. Everything *should* come out smelling spiffy clean.

2: And Baking Soda

But since we all know they somehow issue uniforms pre-soaked in sweat and grime, sometimes you need a little heavy duty helping. Enter: Baking soda! Using your regular detergent, add a half-cup of baking soda directly to the basin of your washing machine. Baking soda is basically the miracle cleanser of 2014 in this house, so I'm not terribly surprised by this. I'm just shocked I didn't think of it myself!

Pro Tip: Baking soda and a scrub brush is apparently the magical solution for cleaning covers. "Scrub brush and baking soda," says Amy. "If that doesn't work, then it's time for a new cover!!

3: For Desperate Times, Try Desperate Measures (i.e., Ammonia)

Millinda knows what it's like to deal with heavy sweat, heavy grime uniforms and she has found that ammonia gets the job done with nothing else will. "I wash everything he sweats in in hot water and add a cup of ammonia," she says. "The current cammies don't shrink and it gets out all the smells, PT gear and everything." Well, color me happy.

4: Hot Water Wash

With load after load of extra-stinky uniforms putting your washing machine to its test, it's a good idea to run a hot water wash after every particularly brutal military load.

Not only does this help the washing machine keep itself clean on a regular basis, it's also the best way to make sure the stank from the last load doesn't get into the next. (Anyone who has ever washed a uniform that was worn straight for three weeks in the desert without being washed once can completely understand where I'm coming from here. If you haven't done that yet, don't worry. It's only a matter of time. Just know -- it's exactly as bad as you think it is.

5: Monthly Upkeep

Maybe because we've been in crappy rentals with crappy washing machines that I blamed for all of our cammie stank problems, but I've done a really terrible job of actually maintaining our washing machine. End result: I've had guest room towels that smell vaguely like uniform, and not in a good "this smells of bravery and patriotism!" way. But more in a "oh gosh I'm so, so sorry, let me get you some new ones" way.

I was tsk tsk'ed for this recently when I complained to a more senior wife that I'm thinking of just hosing down all uniforms outside and insisting they go to a laundromat to get clean. "If you never clean the thing that does the cleaning," she said, "how do you expect it to do its job at all?"

Touché, wise woman. Touché.

There are a lot of DIY ways to clean your machine, but I'm partial to the pre-packaged cleaner our washing machine manual recommends. I'm not sure what's in it, I'm entirely sure I don't want to know, and I'm also pleased to report it works like a charm. I now clean the washing machine every month - and it works so well with a little regular upkeep I haven't had to use vinegar in a few weeks.

But today's supposed to be the hottest day on record where we live in Florida, though, so my guess is that will be out the window tomorrow. But hey: At least now, when he comes home with the sweat-soaked, grime-caked, "what IS that smell?" military uniform laundry load, I can look at him and say "hey, no problem. I've got this."

And for once, I'll know I'm right.

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