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OPINION

The cost of Army wardrobe malfunctions

By KEVIN PETERSEN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 2, 2019

Soldiers leave the U.S. Army for a variety of reasons, but they all experience the same nightmare before getting out: turning in their equipment. The process typically takes a week of searching for, inventorying and scrubbing clean every last knee pad, grenade pouch and canteen issued since basic training. If you’re missing a piece of gear, tough luck — you pay for it. No exceptions.

It doesn’t help that the service has issued three different patterns of the same exact item since 2005.

For a little more than a decade, the Army has been suffering an identity crisis of sorts, to the detriment of its troops. It was bad enough that the Army flip-flopped on the style of the belt for the new “Army Green” dress uniform, the third dress uniform in the past five years. But the service has also been indecisive on the design and distribution of equipment that is actually vital to combat operations. During an era of major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ambivalence has come at great economic cost and it has endangered lives.

Before today’s colonels and first sergeants invaded Iraq back in 2003, their old-school woodland camouflage uniforms were wisely switched out for the previously tested and largely effective desert camouflage. But by 2005, that uniform was replaced by the absurdly named and laughably ineffective “universal camouflage pattern” uniform, even though the pixelated “universal” pattern was outperformed by many others during testing.

The one-camouflage-fits-any-war zone approach was supposed to save the Army money. Unfortunately, the pattern may have made soldiers more visible because of an optical effect called isoluminance, which happens when the human eye sees multiple patterns as a single whole — precisely what camouflage is supposed to avoid.

To save face — and lives — the universal pattern was replaced in the early 2010s with the far more effective “MultiCam” pattern. To no one’s surprise, it turned out that the Army had actually passed over the MultiCam during the 2004 evaluations. Yet, within just a few years of its belated adoption, the MultiCam uniform was also replaced, only this time by a virtually indistinguishable variant called Scorpion W2, despite its poorer performance when compared with the original MultiCam.

When new camouflage patterns are adopted, at a cost of several billion dollars, that means also issuing new rucksacks and body armor to replace the now-obsolete patterns of the old gear.

Even in my own short three years as an Army infantryman — July 2015 to September 2018, by no means a dynamic time in the Army when compared with its recent history — I was issued uniforms in three different camouflages, three different sets of body armor, two largely similar helmets, five different rucksacks and two sets of webbing, among the matching variants of the many other little items, such as gloves and knee pads, that were required for combat operations. On my deployment to Afghanistan, of course, I brought only one of each item — the rest sat in a storage container back home.

When it came time to turn the gear back in, I had to account for all $12,456.09 worth of equipment that had been lent to me, despite only ever using a fraction of it. Thankfully, periodic inventory-taking meant I was missing only a few pieces, which I was able to replace at surplus stores for about $100, avoiding the higher tab the Army would have charged.

As a result of its disorganization, the Army has tremendous stockpiles of outdated equipment collecting dust even as soldiers are spending money from their own modest paychecks to buy magazine pouches that actually shut securely and boots that conform to regulations but are better and more comfortable than standard issue.

What makes this waste particularly harmful is its accompanying opportunity cost: The money spent on researching, producing and distributing new uniforms every few years would have been immensely more effective if instead it had been used to provide the best possible equipment to the soldiers who need it the most, such as infantrymen and engineers who are directly involved in combat operations.

Army brass is still deciding on minute details of the Army Green dress uniform, but an admiring President Donald Trump has already declared his satisfaction with the “very expensive” new look. It’s hard to think about the billions spent over the past two decades on all the Pentagon’s wardrobe changes when apparently a $15,000 mine detector that might have saved a soldier’s life is too pricey.

Army National Guard Spc. James Slape, working in an ordnance-disposal unit, was killed by a roadside bomb as he searched for explosives in Afghanistan in October 2018. According to The New York Times, his unit’s repeated requests for better equipment, such as the advanced mine detector, were turned down for lack of funding. While U.S. soldiers continue to go to war under-equipped, at least they’ll look sharp marching around in their sharp Army Greens the next time a president orders up a military parade.

Kevin Petersen is a student at Columbia University’s School of General Studies and a U.S. Army veteran of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.

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