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Dressing the Military Not Easy

June 17, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When the Army decided to change its women’s dowdy uniforms, it did so much as it chooses its weapons. Each dart, tuck and loop went through a maze of bureaucratic approvals. Each item was tested and retested.

No wonder it took three years before the new uniform finally hit the shelves earlier this year. Uniforms for other military services came under the same intense scrutiny.

``It’s very hard to fit one uniform on half a million people,″ explained Kathryn Westerook, who works with the Army’s project manager office at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Few things are as important, however, as getting the uniform right _ both for morale purposes among the troops and as a recruiting tool for the different military services, defense officials say.

But it’s not easy to get that spiffy look on almost 3 million people of different sizes and shapes. It’s even harder to find a design that keeps the uniform looking fresh in different weather and what at times can be difficult circumstances.

Each of the services _ Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines _ has its own uniform board guided by uniform policies and goals established by each service secretary and chief of staff. The board considers every matter related to uniforms and how to improve them _ no matter how trivial it may look to an outsider’s eyes.

No pocket is too small for the board’s attention, no fabric too coarse. Those extra 2 millimeters of glitter that can grace a Navy woman’s ears? Approval to expand the Navy’s ``earring policy″ from 4 to 6 millimeters came only after two months of hang time in the bureaucratic channels.

Then there’s the controversy over the Marine buttons.

When someone suggested that the buttons on Marine women’s shirts be covered with a flap, the uniform board frowned, and rejected it. But it did recently approve the addition of a pocket inside the band of the women’s skirts as long as it is only wide enough to hold an ID card.

To get to the uniform board, a recommendation has to travel through a rigid chain of command that seeks to ensure that the recommendation reflects an overall or collective concern and not a personal opinion.

Few uniform changes were met with as much enthusiasm among women in the military as the decision to change the sizing chart long used to determine uniform sizes, so it conforms to civilian sizes.

For years, a woman who fit into a size 10 civilian shirt, found that she had to wear a size 16 military shirt because of the different sizing chart. The adjustment caused some military women fits of depression, said Westerook, the uniform specialist.

``It was a sort of a paranoia ... with the women because they were wearing larger sizes,″ agreed Judy Petsch, uniform specialist at the Marines uniform board.

Experts say several factors are taken into consideration before a uniform is designed.

For instance, the buttons on a Navy uniform have to be stitched tightly and studs similar to those on blue jeans are not allowed on Navy pants because if they come loose on a windy carrier flight deck they could get into a plane’s engine.

Becky Adkins, director of the Navy’s uniform program, said another consideration is fabric. Navy personnel who work in offices wear polyester uniforms, but those serving aboard ships don poly-cotton uniforms because polyester clothing melts in a fire.

Base commanders have a final say on when soldiers can change from summer to winter uniforms. If it gets super hot in November, all a soldier can do is get rid of some of the uniform’s extra layers, such as sweaters. Switching to the lighter-weight summer uniform is not an option.

And traditions die hard in the military.

When the Air Force changed its uniform in 1993, it moved the designated spot for rank insignia from the epaulet to the sleeve.

Many were offended.

``It was too much change for some people,″ said Lt. Col. Ray Cannon, chief of Air Force clothing.

Still, it took nearly two years for the decision to be reversed.