Morale: A Stitch In Time

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December 17, 2007: Three years ago, the U.S. Army introduced a new combat uniform (ACU, or Army Combat Uniform). It replaced the battle dress uniform (BDU) and the desert camouflage uniform (DCU). The ACU was the first new field uniform since 1981. After over a year of testing, troops wearing the ACU arrived in Iraq during the Summer of 2005. Since then the primary complaints about the ACU has been durability. Seams, particularly in the crotch area, split. Usually during combat. The cloth used for the ACU was also considered less durable than what the BDU was made of. Wear and tears were more frequent with the ACU. Again, this was mostly noted in combat, or during extended operations in the field (particularly rocky parts of Afghanistan). It was also in the hills of Afghanistan that the old Desert Boot fell apart from use.

Time and again, especially since World War II, combat uniforms have been designed that did not take into account the enormous punishment uniforms take in combat. It was noted during World War II that field uniforms wore out more quickly in combat, than they did during training (which was supposed to be as intense as combat.) There were some efforts to develop testing methods that would duplicate the rigors of combat, but nothing that really did the job. The bureaucrats were, in the end, content to ship uniforms out and wait for complaints to come back, indicating what elements of the uniforms would benefit from sturdier construction.

During development, three different versions of the ACU were created and over 10,000 uniforms were manufactured and tested in Iraq and at Army training centers. Hundreds of changes were made in response to soldier comments. But all that effort did not reveal the weak construction (for combat) problem. That's not so good for clothing referred to as the Army Combat Uniform.

The ACU contains dozens of new features, and changes. Many of the changes were in direct response to suggestions, or complaints, of the troops. In the past, the troops were often not consulted. The Internet has changed that, and some strongly worded comments emailed from the front (cc'd to Members of Congress), prompted the army to redesign the ACU, and to reinforce over a million ACU trousers already in use.

While the new uniform looks ugly to many civilians, it's very comfortable. This is partly due to the bagginess. In combat, the troops prefer loose and comfortable to tight and fashionable. The ACU was approved for mass production in 2004, and everyone had it by this year. The new uniform costs about $86 per set, about $30 more than the old uniforms. The army will be increasing clothing allowances for this, although many troops are just issued the uniforms (four sets at a time). Because of the durability problem, many troops bought higher quality (and more expensive) versions of the ACU from other suppliers.

As more suggestions come in from ACU users, the army will develop ACU 2.0. Maybe this time the uniform will get some realistic testing before going into mass production.

 


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