Uniform Insanity

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Air Force uniforms. Some of them, anyway.

Military bigwigs in Washington may spend all their time fretting about the F-35, Ford-class carriers and assorted Ground Combat Vehicles, but the grunts in the field are far more consumed with their uniforms. After all, unlike warplanes, warships and armor, they wear uniforms pretty much every day, and are quick to point out their shortcomings (Need proof? Check out this website, dedicated to “the latest US Military Uniform News, Information and Updates”).

Last week’s post on the Washington Post‘s story on the military’s camouflage madness got one Battleland reader stirred up. “The whole uniform thing is even worse than the WaPo story suggests,” s/he says, before venting:

Thoughts Of A Military Fashion Victim

I began wearing the ABU (Airman Battle Uniform) in 2009, while stationed at a stateside Air Force base. This outfit replaced the BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) which had been in service since 1981 and which I’d worn for nearly 17 years.

The ABU fabric is heavier, thicker, hotter and stiffer than the BDU, and the whole thing is oddly cut. If your arms are thin and belly is large, the shirt fits great. If the situation is reversed, not so much. All in all, my first impression of the ABU was that I liked it much less than the BDU’s, an opinion my colleagues often echoed.

Adding to my dislike, the ABU colors were inexplicably inconsistent from piece to piece. Tints ranged from yellowish to greenish to grayish. Most of my ABU components were made with two different colored fabrics – on the same garment. It looks weird. Searching for matching tops and bottoms at the Clothing Sales shop became a popular sport among my fellow Airmen. Not to worry, we were told by sales personnel who fruitlessly tried to help us find matching pairs. The parts don’t have to match, because “color variations are authorized.” Today, it is mildly amusing to count the different shades worn by any given group of Airmen.

However, the authorities informed us these inconveniences were outweighed by the ABU’s superior performance in battle. Even though I had no plans to ever go into battle, I readily conceded that combat performance matters a lot for a military uniform. This perspective helped keep my personal grumbling to a minimum. Persistent rumors that the Air Force was developing a new ABU with light-weight fabric also gave us hope.

But a funny thing happened in May 2011, when I learned I’d been selected for an all-expenses-paid 6 month vacation to Afghanistan, compliments of Uncle Sam. Turns out the ABU’s I’d purchased were not authorized for wear outside the wire. Color me surprised.

Instead, the Air Force provided me with an outfit called the ABS-G, which stands for Airman Battle System – Ground. This “tactical ensemble” – not a uniform, the description emphatically insisted – was a set of pants and shirts which matched the Airman Battle Uniform’s camo pattern but were fire resistant, lighter, softer, and slightly different in a handful of other ways (think zippers, Velcro, pockets). It was strictly for wear in combat areas – not stateside. We weren’t even supposed to wear it on the airplane that took us from the States to Afghanistan.

Feeling slightly awkward ordering a uniform (ahem, tactical ensemble) that would only get 6 months of use, I dutifully filled out a spreadsheet with my sizes, emailed it to the ABS-G warehouse, and received the outfit in the mail. I’m not sure why this ensemble was not available in base uniform stores, but I’m sure there is an excellent reason.

I had to mail back the pieces that didn’t fit along with the battleshirt that inexplicably had two left arms, then waited for replacement articles to arrive. Then I did the whole thing again when the second shipment didn’t quite fit either. Fortunately, the correct sizes eventually showed up, shortly before my departure.

Well, not everything arrived. I never received the fireproof underwear they promised me… and never stopped believing that “fireproof underwear” is frickin’ funny, in a deadly serious, gallows humor kind of way. I eventually got used to wearing the extra-large (fireproof!) socks I received because the warehouse was out of my size and sent bigger ones instead.

As part of the ordering process, I learned there were no official providers for the required ABS-G name patch. Instead, we were told to order from which ever vendor we could find online and we were on our own to find one. The cheapest patches ran me $30 a pair, easily the most expensive nametags I’ve ever owned.

In some ways, the ABS-G fit better than the ABU’s, but looked considerably worse. It felt loose and casual, like pajamas, but not nice pajamas. It felt schlumpy. But it’s what I was supposed to wear, so I did. And when I arrived at Kabul, one of the first things my boss said to me was “We’ve got to get you some OCP’s.”

OCP? That’s a nested acronym which stands for OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) Camouflage Pattern. Also called multicams, this fire-proof, bug-proof combat uniform was exclusive to Afghanistan and worn by US Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. It also looked suspiciously similar to the British uniform. As directed, I dutifully filled out another spreadsheet and emailed it to the office that issues OCP’s, then waited for the mail to arrive. My ABS-G ensemble and $30 name tags were only 2 months old when a big box containing 4 sets of OCP’s showed up. I wore those for the remaining four months of my deployment.

The customs form said the OCP’s had a value of $2400. Like I didn’t feel bad enough about uniform costs already. I wore the OCP’s from late January through mid-May, and by my math that comes to roughly $600 per month of wear. I assuaged my conscience slightly by giving one set of OCP’s to a Chaplain buddy whose boss wanted him in OCP’s too but who for some reason couldn’t get his order filled.

The fact that the apparently misnamed Airman Battle Uniform was not authorized for use outside the wire is both befuddling and frustrating. The rapid transition from ABS-G to OCP made my head spin, as does the policy that OCP’s are only to be worn in Afghanistan. The consensus among the troops I spoke with was that we’d prefer to just wear the OCP’s all the time – over there and back home – and not have to maintain so many different outfits.

But the real head-scratcher in all this was the $200 Airman Battle Shirt, aka the Spiderman Shirt. I was issued four in the OCP pattern and two in the ABU/ABS-G pattern… and was never authorized to wear any of them, even in Afghanistan. Apparently these special shirts are reserved for certain missions and activities, none of which I ever performed. So they stayed in my closet. As I got ready to leave Afghanistan I tried to return them, unworn, but was told they would be tossed into a burn pit. That’s when I decided I might as well hang on to them.

Of all three outfits, I liked the OCP’s best. They fit better, looked tougher, and were the same pattern as my Army and Navy colleagues wore. It was almost as if we were on the same team. Plus I got to wear cool patches, including an American flag patch, which was a nice change of pace from the relatively bare ABU and the even bare-er ABS-G. But personal style and comfort aside, the OCP’s seemed to have the best performance in the field. And that’s what really matters, isn’t it?

Now I’m back in the US of A and wearing my ABU’s again. They still fit funny – even after paying to have them tailored, they feel tight around the arms and big around the waist – and I can no longer comfort myself with the thought that they would perform well in a fight. I’m sure there’s a great reason to limit wear of OCP’s to the Afghanistan theater of operations. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what that reason might be.

Thanks for sharing, Military Fashion Victim!