Morale: Career Conscious Commanders Leave Marines Naked In Battle

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September 20, 2011: Over the last four years, the U.S. Marine Corps has been switching to flame retardant combat uniforms. This came about because a few troops  suffered severe burns while wearing the older uniforms, and because a number of new flame retardant materials have become available. There was a problem with this, in that the flame retardant cloth was much less sturdy than the cotton and cotton blends used previously. Thus while a cotton combat uniform would last 3-4 months in Afghanistan, a flame retardant one would often start falling apart (tears and split seams) after 3-4 weeks of action. The brass are responding by sending more uniforms, allowing limited use of cotton ones and having cotton thread used with fire retardant cloth. But that does not really solve the problem of troops seeking some sturdy uniforms and relief from the heat in the combat zone, versus generals who seek to keep the casualty rate down no matter what.

This has been going on for a while. For example, five years ago, marines in Iraq were in a rebellious mood over a ban on the use of polyester undergarments. These high-tech T-shirts employ fibers that wick sweat away from the body, cooling the wearer, or keeping them warmer in cold weather. Trouble is, polyester melts if exposed to flame, which often happens when a roadside bomb goes off, and you are in the way. The marines were told they could still wear the official, less effective, high-tech underwear they were issued. It took about six months before someone reminded the brass that the official stuff, called polypro, was also made of polyester. Oops. So polypro was also banned for use outside the wire (outside bases). The marines were not amused.

The initial ban was widely attributed to some craven generals who had been frightened by some weasel PAO (Public Affairs Officer) who pointed out how harmful it would be to a commander's career if the media got hold of a story about a marine getting killed because his polyester T-shirt melted. Marines pointed out, to anyone who would listen, that the t-shirt was protected by the uniform blouse and body armor. If the flame got through all that, you were probably dead already. The media did not pick on this angle.

The marines, who have to fight in the cold and heat, wanted the brass to get out of their underwear. The army was apparently aware of all this, but had not banned polyester. Meanwhile, the air force has come up with a t-shirt that used fire-resistant, high tech ("meta-aramid") fibers, which performed like the banned polyester undergarments. As a result of all this, many marines risked a fine or demotion by wearing the polyester undergarments anyway. It's damn cold in Iraq in the Winter, especially at night, when many of the marines are outside the wire, hunting for bad guys. Marines are still steamed by earlier efforts to load them up with additional body armor, an effort that slows you down in combat, and gets you killed. Again, it was believed to be brass more concerned with bad reviews, than what combat marines actually needed.

The conflict continues with the latest round of fire retardant uniforms that won’t stay together at any time, but will limit your injuries if you catch fire.

 


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