Another uniform change, another wear test. NAVADMIN 214/17 was released on 31 August 2017, complete with the details of the Navy’s latest attempt to get working uniforms right. The planned roll-out of the Navy Working Uniform (NWU) Type III has been updated to replace the NWU Type I by October 2019, a year later than originally planned. Perhaps this delay will be nothing more than a minor setback. The recent history of the Navy’s uniform policy, unfortunately, portends another conclusion.
The Navy has the best dress uniforms in our nation’s military. The service dress blue and white are sharp, unique, and represent our shared heritage far more than those of the other services. One glance at a Sailor’s jumper evokes images of the Navy, whether in 1917 or 2017. He or she would never be confused for a Soldier, Airman, Coastguardsman, or Marine. This is a positive trait, and may our Sailors appear as distinctive in another 100 years.
Alas, most Sailors wear dress uniforms infrequently, and the Navy also has the worst working uniforms of all the services. The last two decades have brought a litany of regrettable mismanagement, and the situation demands accountability. Our Sailors deserve better.
According to Navy Uniform Regulations, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Manpower, Personnel, Training, and Education, is charged by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), through the Navy Uniform Board, to continuously review U.S. Navy uniform matters. Membership in the Navy Uniform Board includes flag officers and master chief petty officers from across the senior Navy staff and fleet. These individuals are assisted by permanent staff at the Navy Uniform Matters Office, consisting of a civilian head, E-9 deputy head, and E-6 clothing allowance specialist. For simplicity’s sake, and to reflect their considerable power, I refer to them collectively as the “uniform gods.”
The uniform gods repeatedly have missed the mark with respect to working uniforms.
1) Navy Working Uniforms take too long to be introduced. Inevitably, the Navy precedes each uniform change with “wear tests” in fleet concentration areas, spread out over months or years. Theoretically, this would allow the uniform gods to predict potential problems, such as that the bright gold physical training uniform (PTU) shirt highlights dirt, grease, and other deck undesirables acquired every time a Sailor does a pushup. Instead, unforeseen problems often arise after implementation. If wear tests do not result in useful feedback, then what is the reason for the long fielding times for new uniforms? In the time it took the Navy to test and field the NWU Type I, the much larger Army was able to push through their new Army Combat Uniforms. Not only did they get them to more Soldiers, more quickly, but they all looked uniform. Not so for the Navy, because….
2) Navy Working Uniforms don’t match. The NWU Type I, once fielded, was purportedly the working uniform for all Sailors, regardless of rating or designator. Except for aviation-rated personnel, who wore flight suits. And except for expeditionary members, who wore NWU Type IIIs. And masters-at-arms, who had their own get-up. And anyone stationed in Washington, D.C., who were not allowed to wear NWUs. The last point borders on ridiculous. It may be fine to impose a stringent dress code for the White House and Capitol Hill, but the Pentagon? Where literally thousands of our joint brethren wear their versions of working utilities daily? For everyday duty, Pentagon Sailors are relegated to wearing their Navy Service Uniforms (NSUs), leading to awkward situations in which….
3) NSUs often are not appropriate. Picture a Sailor working alongside other service members in a Pentagon joint operations center providing direct support to the Secretary of Defense, including such duties as transporting heavy baggage to and from the flight line for official travel. Dressed in NSUs, the Sailor looks out of place next to utility-clad Soldiers, Airmen, Coastguardsmen, and Marines. At the end of the evolution the Sailor is missing ribbons and has scratched his belt buckle and scuffed his leather shoes. Why not just wear rugged NWUs to complement his joint siblings and better handle the heavy work? Because they’re not authorized for wear in the Pentagon. That is, not until the Sailor’s chain of command eventually gets approval for a waiver from the Director of the Navy Staff, a common-sense concession that takes months of paperwork. But at least he’ll be safe wearing them ashore. His shipmates afloat have been compelled to don another uniform because……
4) NWU Type I is not safe. After years of wear-testing and phased introduction, the NWU Type I was in place throughout the fleet. Then, in October 2012, the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility determined that these uniforms were flammable and thus not suitable for shipboard wear. So, the Navy rapidly purchased flame-resistant coveralls (FRVs) for afloat use, while the NWUs were designated for shore duty. This led to a situation in which Sailors ashore and afloat had to have two different sets of working uniforms, which defeated the purpose of a single working uniform. But okay, once the Navy instituted the FRVs, all was well afloat, right? Not really, because now the problem is…
5) FRVs are not readily available. FRVs are organizational clothing, and they cannot be bought in a uniform shop. Only Sailors meeting certain criteria (in this case, shipboard assignment) are entitled to them. The organizational label also applies to items like flight suits and flight jackets (despite their possession by myriad individuals who don’t rate them). Only two FRVs are issued to each Sailor. Better hope the ship’s laundry doesn’t go down, because then our Sailors are going to suffer in dirty FRVs. If they tear their coveralls (note: they’re not very durable) and the ship doesn’t have the proper size replacement (entirely likely), they are out of luck. The same dilemma faces short-term shipriders, such as reservists serving on temporary duty.
The solutions to these challenges are straightforward:
1) Make uniform changes (if, and when needed) faster. Field new uniforms in one fleet-wide consolidated phase. The Army did it; the Navy can, too. Geographic “wear tests” indicate indecisiveness.
2) Make uniforms match. Update the uniform regulations to mandate Navy-wide working uniforms—ashore and afloat. Eliminate unnecessary exceptions. Flight suits are for flying aircraft, not desks.
3) Make uniforms universal. Once a working uniform is approved, it should be approved in all locations and situations. Differences between what’s allowed on board ship versus on the pier versus at the Navy Exchange versus out in town are confusing. Allow them to be worn in the Pentagon, where Sailors sometimes engage in manual labor (believe it or not).
4) Make uniforms safe.
5) Make uniforms available. Any working uniform should be sufficiently stocked for purchase at any uniform shop, Navy-wide, as soon as it is fielded.
6) Make the uniform gods accountable. Certain situations—e.g., the belated realization of NWU flammability—should have resulted in public firings. There should be no hiding on Olympus for leaders who fail our Sailors.
Captain Augelli is the information warfare commander for Carrier Strike Group 5/CTF-70 based in Yokosuka, Japan. He was commissioned in 1993 and has a large crate in his basement filled with perfectly good wash khakis he’s no longer allowed to wear, permanently stained physical training uniforms he doesn’t want to wear, and precious little space for his NWU Type Is which will be phased out in 2019.
Photo caption: It's all too common to find Sailors on any ship or any base wearing different uniforms. Here three Navy personnel are wearing two different Navy Working Uniforms.
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