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Seeking Morale-Builder, Army Pins Its Hopes on Berets for All

October 18, 2000|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The beret, a symbol of the dash and power of elite military forces, will become standard gear for all U.S. Army units under a new morale-building initiative announced Tuesday by the Army's highest-ranking officer.

Facing enlistment problems and an exodus of junior officers, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, said that the Army will begin outfitting troops with a black beret to symbolize their transformation into a lighter, more mobile force. As of June, the beret will replace the Army-green cap that folds flat and is sometimes called an envelope cap.

"It will be a symbol of unity, a symbol of Army excellence, a symbol of our values," Shinseki told the annual convention of the Assn. of the United States Army, a professional support group.

A green beret is worn by Army Special Forces, while Army Rangers wear black and airborne units wear maroon. British, German and United Nations troops also wear berets.

The cap gained a measure of glamour in 1962 when President Kennedy authorized the Army Special Forces to wear green berets.

But changes in military dress always cause controversy, and some traditionalists quickly predicted that the move could make the elite units feel diminished, while not doing much for others.

Berets of various colors have been introduced--and dumped--before, they said.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, predicted that, while some troops may like the innovation, many others will find them less practical than the modified baseball caps now in use by the Army that shield the eyes from sun and rain.

"This tells me the people in personnel are really worried how the troops are feeling these days," Peters said. He said that British soldiers he knows who wear berets do not like them, adding that the rimless cap has not seemed dashing since the 1960s, in his view.

"It's like being told you can wear bell-bottom pants," he said.

Richard J. Dunn, a retired Army colonel, said that the beret is a "pain" that doesn't keep out the wind or rain yet has to be carefully shaped and placed on the head in a certain way to look neat.

Without a great deal of care, "you'll look like a French chef with a squashed hat. It's a totally impractical piece of headgear," he said.

Dunn added that he fears that authorizing widespread use of the headgear "kind of negates the elite status of the units" that wear it now.

Col. Thomas Csrnko, assistant commandant of the U.S. Army for the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Ft. Bragg, N.C., said that to the Special Forces, the beret "is a sign of distinction and a badge of courage."

He noted that over the years its use has been an emotional issue with soldiers, including in the late 1980s, when the leadership phased out the beret for a time amid some resistance.

Yet Csrnko said that he believes the elite units would not be upset to have berets come into wider use.

The design of uniforms is an emotion-charged issue in the military--and one that has a considerable effect on recruitment.

For the Army, one question has been whether to try to alter the appearance of its polyester green uniform, which is less expensive and less tailored than the uniforms of the other ground forces branch, the Marines.

Some advocates have argued that the Army should restore the sleeker styles of World War II uniforms. So far, however, the Army bureaucracy has resisted.

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