It’s without an ounce of wistfulness that I bid adieu to one of the most ridiculous and unpopular pieces of Army-issue equipment–the black beret. For the past decade, when soldiers were not in Iraq or Afghanistan, they suffered through parades, formations and all manner of long walks with sweaty, misshapen plops of wool covering their heads. This week, the Army finally let it go.
Why a beret? Good question. For most of the post-Vietnam era, troops in Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs) wore patrol caps, which resemble a baseball cap complete with a visor and a sweat band. It worked in the field, the motor pool (really just a giant slab of concrete) and on the way to the office. Elite units wore berets: paratroopers wore maroon, Rangers wore black and Special Forces troops (the Green Berets) wore Green. It was a nice ecosystem. Then in 2000, then Army Chief of Staff (and current Secretary of Veterans Affairs) Gen. Eric Shinseki, came to the conclusion that, “the beret has become a symbol of excellence of our specialty units.” So on the Army’s birthday that following year, everyone took off their patrol caps and donned the black beret.
It was supposed to make everyone feel elite. Instead, the troops hated it. Angry at being stripped of one of their symbols of excellence, the Rangers switched to tan berets, while soldiers across the Army complained that the beret was completely impractical. It was hot and provided no shade for the eyes. When you bought it, you had to shave off the excess felt and then “shape it.” Some were so bizarrely crafted that they covered the soldier’s entire right eye, forcing him to either bump into things or look like a pizza chef. It took me so long to make my beret resemble something fashionable that I kept the same one for seven years, and when it wasn’t on my head, I tossed it in disgust behind the sun visor of my car.
In August 2005, I remember standing in our motor pool at Fort Hood Texas at 4pm. It was so hot that my black leather boots (thankfully, also a by-gone relic) were oozing melted shoe polish. The black wool added easily five degrees to the 103 on the thermostat and when you took off the beret, you had a black, rubbery line on your forehead. A month later my roommate deployed to patrol New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. To distinguish between the different troops, the National Guardsman wore their patrol caps, while the active duty soldiers wore (you guessed it) their black berets. In New Orleans. In September. Patrolling water-logged streets in the rank end-of-summer heat.
Nearly six years later, the Army has come to its senses. The beret will still be around, but it will be assigned where it belongs: with the formal uniform. At least most troops only have to wear those a few times a year.