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Staff Sgt. Mary Walker of the 435th Comptroller Squadron is test-wearing the Air Force's prototype uniform. For the first time, the service offers a cut for women that Walker says makes it more comfortable and versatile.
Staff Sgt. Mary Walker of the 435th Comptroller Squadron is test-wearing the Air Force's prototype uniform. For the first time, the service offers a cut for women that Walker says makes it more comfortable and versatile. (Marni McEntee / S&S)
Staff Sgt. Mary Walker of the 435th Comptroller Squadron is test-wearing the Air Force's prototype uniform. For the first time, the service offers a cut for women that Walker says makes it more comfortable and versatile.
Staff Sgt. Mary Walker of the 435th Comptroller Squadron is test-wearing the Air Force's prototype uniform. For the first time, the service offers a cut for women that Walker says makes it more comfortable and versatile. (Marni McEntee / S&S)
Senior Master Sgt. Robert Henson of Ramstein's 786th Security Forces Squadron, right, wears the Air Force's prototype utility uniform during a recent exercise in Hohenfels, Germany. At left is Staff Sgt. Damian Spaits, also of the 786th, wearing the current battle dress uniform. The prototype is being tested at six bases worldwide.
Senior Master Sgt. Robert Henson of Ramstein's 786th Security Forces Squadron, right, wears the Air Force's prototype utility uniform during a recent exercise in Hohenfels, Germany. At left is Staff Sgt. Damian Spaits, also of the 786th, wearing the current battle dress uniform. The prototype is being tested at six bases worldwide. (Marni McEntee / S&S)
Staff Sgt. Jason Hinton, left, reaches out to touch the Air Force prototype uniform worn by Tech. Sgt. Tony Castro. Castro, an Air Force News broadcast producer, is one of 47 airmen in the Kaiserslautern, Germany, area test-wearing the uniform.
Staff Sgt. Jason Hinton, left, reaches out to touch the Air Force prototype uniform worn by Tech. Sgt. Tony Castro. Castro, an Air Force News broadcast producer, is one of 47 airmen in the Kaiserslautern, Germany, area test-wearing the uniform. (Marni McEntee / S&S)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — “Can I touch it?”

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tony Castro gets that question a lot, but he doesn’t take it personally. It’s not him that random passers-by want to touch, it’s his new Air Force prototype uniform.

“It’s show-and-tell time again,” Castro said as a steady stream of curious people caressed his sleeve, checked out his new gray-suede boots and ogled his elastic waistband.

Castro, an Air Force News broadcast producer, is one of 47 airmen in the Kaiserslautern area who are test-wearing the utility uniform. The blue-gray-and-green tiger-stripe design and the eight-point hat get a lot of stares, generate a ton of questions and sometimes get a few guffaws.

That’s OK, because that’s what wearing the uniform is all about.

“You don’t get anywhere fast,” said Staff Sgt. Mary Walker, who works at the 435th Air Base Wing’s Comptroller Squadron.

“I had a lady stop me in the middle of traffic and yell, ‘Hey! Do you like it?’ ” Walker said.

By most accounts, the test-wearers like it a lot.

The nylon-cotton fabric is comfortable, durable and wash and wear. No ironing and starching. No sewing down the pockets so they lay flat. No ungainly male-style high waists on petite women. Steel-toed, no-shine boots so comfortable they barely need to be broken in.

In addition to Ramstein, select airmen are testing the uniform at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Hurlburt Field in Florida, Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, McChord Air Force Base in Washington, Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper ordered the new design last year and most bases started testing it in February and March. It will be worn through September.

All airmen will be able to comment on the design via a Web site — the first ground-up uniform selection process in the military, according to Senior Master Sgt. Robert Henson, the Kaiserslautern military community’s project officer for the new uniform. The Web site should be up by the end of April.

Henson, of Ramstein’s 786th Security Forces Squadron, said Jumper had three goals for the new design: to make a distinctive Air Force uniform, to provide a better fit, and to make the material more durable and less expensive to maintain.

Henson said he has saved an average of $50 a month in dry-cleaning bills since he got the uniform and untold hours shining his shoes.

The new uniform comes in men’s and women’s sizes with many waist-size and length options. It includes a pen pocket, an inside map pocket and a utility pocket that Walker called a “Gerber pocket,” after the popular knives many troops carry.

Two new boots also are being tested; one in black, charcoal gray or tan suede and another that is low-polish, low-shine black leather.

The new uniform doesn’t always get rave reviews.

“I don’t like the color. Tiger stripes just aren’t my thing,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Hinton, a television maintainer for the Armed Forces Network. “And I don’t like the hat. That’s the Marines,” he said.

Some are put off by the colors. Others wonder about the tiny Air Force logo that appears all over the fabric — sometimes upside down.

“It sort of looks like someone had an address stamp and just stamped it around,” said Gen. Gregory S. Martin, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command and the first general officer to wear the prototype.

Castro said the Air Force wants to hear the good, the bad and the ugly about the test uniform. Once the feedback is in, a revised outfit could be available within about two years, with full phase-in in about five years.

“General Jumper is not going to make a decision that’s detrimental to the force. It’s going to be beneficial to us down the line,” Castro said.

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