Morale: Admirals Take The Heat

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April 17, 2014: In late 2013 the U.S. Navy introduced new work coveralls for all shipboard sailors who wear coveralls on the job. The new coveralls were fire resistant and, more importantly not made of polyester (which melts if exposed to flame, like from an explosion). The navy has long issued fire resistant clothing to those working in the engineering department (engines of all sizes and lots of flammable stuff) and on the flight deck. But now everyone will wear the fire resistant coveralls and many sailors are not happy with that. The new coveralls also cost twice as much as the old ones. The navy says it is working a light weight fire resistant coveralls.

This coveralls controversy is not a new problem although it first appeared about half a century ago. It all began with plastic clothing. When polyester became available after World War II many in the military welcomed it because it was more comfortable in hot weather and was easier to keep unwrinkled and looking good. These were important characteristics for the military. It was known that polyester was more likely to burn than cotton but just how bad that could be took a while to become clear. The danger of polyester clothing on warships was brought home in 1982 when many British sailors were burned when Argentine bombs hit their ships. Doctors noted that the burns were made worse by the fact that polyester clothing melted when exposed to the flash of explosions and created nastier burns on sailors. By the end of the 1980s most navies had reverted to cotton or fabric treated with chemical retardants for sailors work and combat uniforms. But sailors still wore a lot of polyester clothing simply because it was cooler in hot climates, did not wrinkle easily and was more comfortable in general. It was also cheaper, which a lot of military accountants liked.

While the new U.S. Navy coveralls are accepted as a useful safety measure, the move was criticized by a lot of sailors as yet another concession to political correctness, zero defects and senior officers more concerned about covering their asses than sailor comfort and morale. This is not a new problem either. For example, between 2006 and 2010 there was a significant reduction in burn wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the growing use of flame resistant uniforms. That was in response to American troops in Iraq (and later Afghanistan) encountering more roadside bombs. That produced an increase in burn injuries. While the bombs killed largely because of blast, many more burn wounds were inflicted by the explosion, and subsequent fires in the vehicles.

The army and marines already had flame resistant uniforms, but these were only issued to personnel believed likely to need them (fire fighters and the like). Issuing the existing flame resistant uniforms to everyone was quickly found to be impractical, as the flame resistant clothing was heavier, and retained more body heat than regular combat uniforms. This caused far more heat related injuries. Thus after 2006 these older uniforms were replaced with lighter and cooler flame resistant uniforms. The flame resistant clothing took longer to catch fire, and, unlike regular uniform cloth, would not keep burning once the flame was removed.

This was not the only problem with flame resistant clothing and heat injuries. In 2006 marines in Iraq were told they could no longer wear polyester undergarments. These high-tech T-shirts employed fibers that wick sweat away from the body, cooling the wearer, or keeping them warmer in cold weather. However, 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 by all this. 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. The marines knew 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 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 and had not banned polyester. Meanwhile, the air force had come up with a t-shirt that used a fire-resistant, high tech ("meta-aramid") fiber, that 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 were outside the wire, hunting for bad guys. The brass finally backed off on the t-shirt issue, and got less stifling flame resistant uniforms issued.

The navy is letting sailors keep the older, more comfortable coveralls with the understanding that they could be worn under the right conditions (in the tropics, low probability of being attacked). While these morale problems over more comfortable work clothing has not gotten much media attention it was widely known inside the military and apparently the brass took note of that when the got blowback over the new coveralls.

 

 


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