U.S. troops buy own gear for safety, style in battle
Since 9/11, the market for tactical war gear has grown to $150 million annually.
FORT BENNING, Ga.
Commando Military Supply on Victory Drive here is about as different from a musty Army surplus store as you can imagine.Skip to next paragraph
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More REI than M.A.S.H., Commando is regularly jam-packed with deploying grunts and sergeants, poking around for custom gear including $200 flashlights, $150 Oakley protective sunglasses, $180 Thinsulate boots, and $20 thermal socks.
"When you're comfortable and you know where all your gear is, it makes you a better fighter," says Lt. Tucker Knie, an Army Ranger perusing custom ammo pouches and techno-fiber socks. "You don't want to be rummaging around in your pocket during a firefight."
The traditional Army credo is that it's guts that win the glory – not fancy long-johns or Oakley sunglasses. But that old-school thinking is wicking away like perspiration through Gore-Tex as US soldiers today go beyond military-issue battle dress uniforms in favor of top-of-the-line gear to help them get home in one piece – and look sharp, too.
One reason, critics say, is that military procurement, especially of life-saving equipment, is still too slow. Quietly, however, the Pentagon – with the Army leading the charge – has begun bypassing rigid procurement rules, loosening uniformity requirements, and even spearheading technical innovations in gear, ranging from flame-retardant shirts to low-infrared signature zippers.
"The idea now is, 'If it helps Joe do the mission, let him have it – as long as it's not hot pink,' " says Army veteran Logan Coffey, founder of Tactical Tailor, a custom-maker of packs and pouches in Lakewood, Wash. "It's a giant change" in the military mind-set, he says in a phone interview.
Since 9/11, the market for tactical war gear has expanded from nearly nonexistent to nearly $150 million in sales each year, which includes sales directly to soldiers as well as to the Pentagon, according to industry sources.
CIA operatives, domestic SWAT teams, and Border Patrol agents are also rounding out their gear at bazaars like Commando.
To some critics, the sight of soldiers buying their own battle gear symbolizes a divide between frontline grunts and rear echelon procurement officers who may never have seen battle. Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi told the House Armed Services Committee last week that supplies such as body armor and uparmored Humvees "[have] taken entirely too long" to get to frontline troops.
In some cases, charity groups have stepped in to help. Operation Helmet, founded by Bob Meaders of Montgomery, Texas, shipped special helmet liners to soldiers to replace what many soldiers said were poorly designed helmet pads issued by the Army and the Marines. Just as Operation Helmet thought its work was done late last year, more requests came in from troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.