June 7, 2012:
Female soldiers in the U.S. Army are finally getting a combat uniform designed for the female figure. Next comes another struggle to get the army to supply a protective vest designed for women to wear comfortably. It's a chore for a woman to wear body armor designed for men. With more women showing up in combat support jobs comes more instances when women are under fire. Women having to move around, under fire, in body armor not designed for females, can get a lady killed.
It took nine years for the U.S. Army to respond to complaints from female troops about how the ACU (or ACUPAT, for Army Combat Uniform camouflage pattern) did not fit women. Up to fifteen percent of the troops in combat zones are women, and women have long sought an ACU that recognized this. The older ACU just assumed female troops were one of the guys, which they are not. Women have a different shape, and that is very true when it comes to ACUs and their placement of the waistline and the many pockets and pouches for things like knee pads. What worked for the male body did not work for female troops. Everything was just a little bit (or a lot) off, making the ACU much less comfortable for women doing the same jobs as the guys. So the army simply designed an ACU version based on the shape of the female body. The first prototypes were given to women to try out last year, and after a few hours all the female troops asked where they could buy some more of them. Unfortunately, the female ACU won't be standard for another two years. Tests were recently completed and small changes are being incorporated into the first production models of the female ACU. Coming up with a protective vest for the female form faces the same problems (of shape, size, and placement) the army encountered with the ACU.
Meanwhile, the army has continued to make small improvements in its combat uniform, as well as the protective vest. The army has a web site where troops can report problems, and suggest improvements, for the ACUPAT, and there's been a lot of traffic over the last five years (including ones about a female ACU). Most of the changes suggested may seem minor but they mean a lot to troops in combat. For example, the number and placement of pockets is always a popular item. This has been changed several times and now complements the protective vest and the kind of stuff troops put in the pockets. Then there's the monochrome American flag patch, attached via Velcro that reacts to infrared light. This makes it easier to positively identify U.S. troops at night, without lighting up the area. There are several other Velcro strips for the attachment of patches and badges. Most of the pockets are closed with Velcro. The knee pads, which greatly reduce knee injuries for infantry, are now inserted in a pants pocket over the knees. Other changes involve the blouse collar ("Chinese" style, to keep crud out) and the closures on the blouse and pants cuffs (also to keep debris out).
In combat troops go through ACUPATs quickly (often after only a week of heavy combat), so the army is constantly ordering new ones. With the rapid feedback via the army website, and ACUPAT manufacturers ready to make changes quickly, troops often see suggestions they made at the beginning of their Iraq tour, incorporated in ACUPATs they receive near the end. This not only makes for a better combat uniform but does wonders for morale as well.