Thursday, October 13, 2005

ACUs aren't holding up

This in today's Early Bird, via Army Times:

Battle Worn
Field report shows ACU isn't
holding up; fixes are on the way

By Matthew Cox and Gordon Trowbridge, Army Times Staff Writer

CAMP STRYKER, Iraq -- The Army Combat Uniform isn't holding up in combat, say soldiers from the first brigade to deploy to Iraq outfitted in the new garb.

The uniform gets high marks from soldiers for its many pockets and cooler, lightweight, wrinkle-free construction. But soldiers from the Georgia National Guard's 48th Brigade, which deployed here in May, said torn seams, ripped fabric and worn-out Velcro fasteners are common with the battle attire.

"The crotches rip apart all the time," said Spc. Tom Parsons, 27, of St. Louis, assigned to the 220th Engineer Company, attached to the 48th Brigade Combat Team.

"Most of the parts that are sewn together are likely to come apart," said the 220th's Pfc. David Bradbury, 25, also of St. Louis. "If this [color pattern] came in the same style as the [Desert Combat Uniform], I think I'd rather have that."

Sgt. 1st Class Gladys Portwine, the supply sergeant overseeing the brigade's uniform, said the ACUs were expected to last six months in a combat environment. But after about five months of wear by the 48th, including a deployment to the National Training Center in California, the Army began shipping replacements.

Army uniform experts first heard about the problems in July and immediately sent an ACU expert to Iraq for a closer inspection of the wear issues, said Lt. Col. John Lemondes, Product Manager Clothing and Individual Equipment.

Since then, the Army has worked with the firms contracted to make the ACU to ensure soldier-identified weak points are fixed for future fielding.

"We have identified the shortcomings, and we have addressed them," Lemondes said in an Oct. 7 interview.

Dave Geringer, assistant product manager for CIE, said the ACUs were issued to the 48th in February and durability has proven to be in line with uniform experts' projections.

The Army's first new combat uniform since the 1980s, the ACU is to replace the woodland-patterned Battle Dress Uniform and the Desert Combat Uniform by 2008.

The fabric in the ACU is the same 50/50 nylon and cotton blend used in the DCU, except for the wrinkle-resistant treatment. The ACU includes 18 major changes from those uniforms, including Velcro attachments for name tapes and patches; more and repositioned pockets; a camouflage pattern made up of tiny pixels designed for all environments; and a light, wrinkle-resistant fabric.

The Army issued about 500,000 sets of ACUs to deploying soldiers, but it's unclear how many of those uniforms will develop similar problems, Geringer said.

Soldiers must rely on sew-shop fixes and replace their uniforms through their unit supply system for now, he said.

Soldiers from the 48th raised several issues -- good and bad -- concerning the new uniform.

They like the wrinkle-resistant material, which holds up even after long days in hot, unpleasant conditions. The redesigned pockets, especially the angled chest pockets and a new pants pocket on the calf, also are popular.

"Short term, it's a great uniform," said Spc. Michael Harrison of the 220th.

Still, durability issues dominate conversations about the uniform. Brig. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver, the 48th's commander, calls the ACU "the best uniform I've ever worn," but he concedes durability problems.

"When we got here, we got ahead of the supply chain a little bit," said Rodeheaver, who added that officers have noticed wear on thigh cargo pockets where sidearm holsters rub against the fabric.

"They're just not as durable," said Capt. David Casey, a member of the 48th's training team for Iraqi forces. "A lot of guys have had the crotches ripped."

The crotches rip open along the seam that runs between the bottom of the fly and the seam that runs down the leg, Geringer said.

To mend the problem, manufacturers will use a heavier thread for the seam, increase the amount of folded-under fabric before sewing and adjust stitching placement, Geringer said.

"The result is that we more than doubled the strength of that seam just by making those changes."

Soldiers also have complained about Velcro material wearing out and coming loose, and about patches and other items being knocked off the Velcro when putting on or removing body armor.

Geringer said changes have been made to the Velcro's hook and loop fastener material to upgrade the way the edges are finished to improve durability. Improvements also were made to ensure fasteners don't fade as quickly and will stay attached better under hard use.

"We are listening to soldiers," Geringer said.

Lt. Col. Jeff Edge, commander of the 148th Forward Support Battalion, said he switched from a thigh holster to a shoulder holster to avoid wear on his ACU pockets.

"We've had some durability issues," said Edge, who noted that he nevertheless still prefers the ACU's lighter fabric and easy care.

Casey said some soldiers also have had extra wear and tear in and around built-in pockets for knee and elbow pads.

Despite the problems, Casey said, "There are tons of places to store stuff. And the best thing is, no laundry bill. You can basically roll them up in a ball and they come out fine."

Portwine, the 48th's supply sergeant, said acquiring replacement ACUs initially was a challenge, but the supply system kicked in to replace worn uniforms earlier than planned.
Rodeheaver and 48th Command Sgt. Maj. James Nelson said the Army has paid attention to problems the brigade has discovered, and improvements already have been made to make pockets more durable.

Nelson, who has a monthly conversation with program officials on the uniform and other equipment topics, said he's confident Army officials will fix the uniform.

"The second and third generations will be better," he said. "That's the way uniforms work -- that's the way any of our systems works."


I've been seeing soldiers wearing the new "Advanced Combat Uniform" more and more here at Fort Knox. The other day, one assigned to my unit complained about the cost of unit patches with the Velcro backing.

One of the big sales pitches for the ACU's Velcro patch system was to save soldiers money at the sewing shop. The Velcro would allow for "cheap and easy" placement of unit insignia and eliminate "costly" trips to AAFES and civilian tailor stores.

Well, check this out. U.S. Cavalry, whose headquarters are just outside the gates here, is one of the leading civilian suppliers of military gear, often for lower prices than AAFES.

Here are their prices for one uniform item, the namestrip:

Cotton Name Tapes (sew-on): $13.99 for a set of six.
ACU Cotton Name Tapes (Velcro): $9.99 for a set of three.

For the old sew-on variety, that's about $2.33 per namestrip (not counting, in either case, the cost of embroidering one's name). For the ACU version that's supposed to be saving us so much money, it's $3.33. And when the Velcro doesn't last, the 50 cents you save by not having to sew on the namestrip doesn't add up to much in the long-run.

So what gives? My theory, as far as the Velcro goes, is that it was just a dumb idea that got pushed through because someone important thought it up.

On the other hand, I suppose we won't have to be spending any more money on all that expensive Kiwi and those precious hours shining boots anymore.


UPDATE: Open Post at the Mudville Gazette.