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.
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"The Army is planning a $20 billion future combat system, and they can't provide boots that don't wear out," says Roger Charles, editor of DefenseWatch, an investigative website that advocates on behalf of frontline soldiers. "There's no priority for taking care of relatively mundane items where most people would think, 'Gosh, that's so simple. Why don't they have the best boots, the best uniforms, the best helmets, and the best flak jackets?' "Skip to next paragraph
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But through new and rejuvenated efforts like Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier, the Soldier Battle Lab here at Fort Benning, and Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., the Army has quickened the supply chain, sometimes against daunting odds, experts say.
For example, PEO Soldier's Rapid Fielding Initiative recently turned around an order for special mountain boots for units in Afghanistan in a month's time. "The Army has never been able to field such updated equipment so quickly before," says Lt. Col. John Lemondes, head of Clothing and Individual Equipment at Fort Belvoir, Va. "We really are moving at the speed of lighting with respect to equipping the war effort."
And at Ft. Lewis, Wash., one unit commander is putting an array of new protective glasses to the test this month. The unit will use discretionary funds to buy the glasses the soldiers prefer.
Moreover, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service reports that sales of tactical gear to units have climbed from $60 million in 2005 to $90 million in 2007. At the same time, there's evidence that soldiers are spending less of their own money on gear: One study found that two years ago, marines were spending $400 of their own money on extra gear; last year, they spent an average of only $100.
"The military is now doing a pretty good job of outfitting the war fighters with what they need, and a lot of it comes from effort and real caring," says Drumm McNaughton, a Navy veteran and management consultant who has written about the struggles of military procurement.
Because little enhancements can make a big difference, soldiers often choose to pick up their own "dirty packs" to augment the issued gear, especially as many feel flush from combat bonuses.
"What's 100 bucks for a flashlight if it's going to work during an attack, and help you fend off a knife fight?" says a Commando clerk, who didn't want to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak by the store manager.
But many soldiers don't blame the Army. One lieutenant shopping at Commando says standard issue gear is usually good enough. His one complaint: the clunky Army cap, which has a thick bill that can't be formed baseball-style. "They need to change it," he says. "It makes you look like a dork."
Even in life and death situations, fashion means something on the battlefield, soldiers say. "The Army does issue everyone glasses, but the young soldier wants to look cool, fashionable. He wants to look sexy," says Mr. Coffey.
The sales growth in custom tactical gear is partly made possible by manufacturing advances that allow companies to make profit on small batch orders. But for war fighters, a perk to the hard slog is being allowed to put their own spin on the Army look.
"One of the basic tensions is that in the Army there's pressure for a strong collective identity ... to develop this feeling of belongingness and camaraderie," says Frederic Brunel, a marketing professor at Boston University. "At the same time, there is a basic human need to pull away from that ... [to] retain some sense of self-identity that is separate from the group identity."