This past week, our company finally made the transition into the twenty-first century.
The Army has been going through some big changes over the last few years, part of a larger transformation effort set in motion by the Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey. Among other things, these changes include base closures, equipment modifications, and the reorganization of the Army's structure from the current division-based model into one focused on smaller, more self-sufficient Brigade Combat Teams. The most obvious change for soldiers, however, is the most visible one--the switch from the twenty-five year old Battle Dress Uniform to the newer, more ergonomic Army Combat Uniform.
Most people recognize the BDU. It first entered service in 1981, and has been in steady use by all branches of the military ever since. The familiar getup features a mottled woodland color scheme of green, tan, brown, and black, and is worn with the traditional "spit-shine" black combat boots. Over the years, soldiers have learned to take great pride in this uniform, spending many a Sunday afternoon laboriously starching and pressing in preparation for Monday's in-ranks inspections. The boots, likewise, have warranted much attention as well. One could write a book covering all the competing methods for obtaining the best shine. But after twenty-five years, and a shift away from traditional jungle warfare, the Army has decided it's time for something newer; something better-suited to the needs of the modern warfighter. This decision has led to the creation of the new Army Combat Uniform, or ACU.Above: Detail, Army Combat Uniform (M.Freeman)
The ACU was first announced back when I was in Basic. Ever since, the new threads have met up with controversy. The ACU is a complete redesign of the Army uniform, boasting an array of changes, some well-received, others less so. Most obviously, the ACU features a color scheme that, rather than distinguishing between Woodland and Desert, blends the two into a universal pattern intended to protect the soldier between shifting environments, both rural and urban. This new color scheme consists of a mottled digital pattern mixing dark grey, moss-green, and tan. Ostensibly, Army leaders hope that, by keeping the pattern color-neutral and low-key, soldiers will blend in better wherever they go, even if the color matching isn't always a perfect fit.
There are other big changes as well. The traditional black boots are out, and have now been replaced by the beige desert boots commonly seen these days in Iraq and Afghanistan. These boots, of course, require no polishing, and furthermore the uniform itself is significantly lighter, and has been designed to be wrinkle-free, wash-and-wear. There will be no long starch-sessions with this uniform; no Sundays wasted or money spent on dry-cleaning. The pocket layout has been changed, relocating several and angling others so that soldiers in full "battle-rattle" can more easily access the things they need. Name tapes and patches now are removable, held in place by velcro, and in addition most of the buttons on the uniform have been replaced by velcro and heavy-duty plastic zippers. I've heard it said that the velcro is noisy in combat situations, but honestly, if you're in a situation where reaching into your pocket will violate "noise discipline," I'd say you're pretty much fucked anyway.
Like I said before, I've heard a lot of carping about this uniform. I've heard it said that the velcro is noisy, and wears out over time. I've heard that the patches can be easily ripped off or lost. I've heard complaints about the color pattern, and about soldiers looking, at a distance, like pieces of chalk. I've heard complaining about how rolling of the sleeves in hot weather is not authorized. I've even heard complaining about how the ease of maintenance violates Army tradition. But honestly? I like the new uniforms. I like the look of the uniforms, and I like the other changes that affect functionality. I'll agree, the pattern isn't perfect, but I've tested it myself at home, and I find that, on the whole, the overall effect is remarkably versatile. Soldiers now won't have to stand out like sore thumbs when viewed walking up over the edge of a dune, or when moving through shady environments that don't always look perfectly green or perfectly tan. I also like the fact that that I no longer have to shine boots, and can spend more of my downtime on hobbies, or with my wife. I like the the fact that this uniform was designed with practicality, not tradition, in mind, and despite a few minor gripes--the new fabric doesn't always breathe like it should, and the boots are difficult to really care for--I'm happy. Plus, I'm glad to be serving in the Army during a time of such profound change, and I view the new look as emblematic of that change. I feel like I'm standing on the leading edge of something, and to be honest, that's a nice feeling. I'm sure we'll get used to the new gear over time, and I imagine that one day we'll even come to be fond of the slightly Gestapo-looking color scheme, and complain just as vocally when something new comes along the way.
Now, if only the Army would spend the money to outfit me with an M-4 carbine instead of the cumbersome and fickle M-16. Then we'd really be in business.