I’m a simple kind of guy. I don’t want much out of life. I want the same thing any red-blooded American wants: freedom, health, love, and to retire without buying any more new uniforms. And to be perfectly honest I’m willing to do without freedom, health and love, because lately the Navy has been cranking out new uniforms faster than Captain’s Mast after a 3M inspection. I have already reached a point where, thanks to my uniforms, I have more clothes than my wife.
I’m not talking about replacing an old worn-out uniform. I can live with that. What I don’t want is to purchase, yet again, the latest incarnation developed by the Navy’s uniform board wizards after another visit from the “good idea fairy” and their 7th margarita. In my career I have owned six different working uniforms, each one a little more ridiculous than the one before.
You see, in the Navy, we have a lot of uniforms. This is something that civilians have a hard time understanding (another thing is duty days). In the civilian world there are uniforms too, but they generally help customers identify employees. In the Navy we have uniforms for formal occasions, for really formal occasions, for office work, for shipboard work, for dirty shipboard work, and for really dirty shipboard work. We even have uniforms for really fancy dinners that we might never attend. For a civilian to understand the complexities of U.S. Naval uniforms is an exercise in futility.
When I first joined the Navy (back when Noah was commissioning the ark) the standard working uniform was called dungarees. It consisted of a light blue chambray shirt (I’m not really sure what “chambray” is) and blue denim pants. Basically they were blue jeans, but not regular blue jeans you can buy at Walmart. These jeans were bell-bottoms with rectangular pockets sewn on the front (just like the ones on the back), so that at first glance it appeared that you had put your pants on backwards.
The upside of dungarees is that they were very comfortable. The downside was that, more or less, this was essentially the same uniform worn in a federal prison (though, to be fair, there were times when this seemed appropriate). We weren’t even allowed to leave base in this uniform—probably out of fear that the police would try to return us to prison.
Dungarees were the enlisted working uniform dating back to well before World War II, so in 1999 it was time for a change. For years enlisted sailors had been asking for a working uniform that looked professional, like a military uniform instead of inmate attire. After listening to the sailors and carefully weighing the operational and morale benefits the Navy finally settled on a uniform that did neither: the utilities. Utilities were the same color scheme as dungarees (light blue shirt and dark blue pants). The downside of the utilities was that they were less comfortable than dungarees. On the upside we no longer resembled convicts… now we looked like gas station attendants. It’s like we finally got out of prison only to be hired by a gas station.
The utilities were universally despised by the fleet which should have guaranteed their survival for years, but change was in the air in the early 2000s. The war on terror was in full force, money was flowing into the Defense Department and the Navy was modernizing equipment and moving away from the old ways of doing things. It was a crazy time.
Since the Navy was pretty much throwing money around like a drunken sailor on a port visit in Thailand, they created Task Force Uniform to address the uniform issue. That’s right, in the middle of the biggest war since Vietnam, they actually created a task force to figure out what to wear.
Task Force Uniform got right to work and discovered that if they revised all the Navy uniforms instead of just one, they’d probably be able to avoid any real work for the rest of their careers (this is still going on today). After reviewing the seabag requirements it was determined that there were way too many uniforms for the average sailor to maintain (which is kind of like a scientist announcing that they discovered that cancer is bad). After this watershed moment TFU (this is an actual Navy acronym) chose to add more uniforms. Seriously. To minimize uniforms they developed the physical fitness uniform, the service dress khakis, the Navy service uniform and three kinds of camouflage uniforms.
The biggest development to come out of all this was the new Navy working uniform (NWU). No longer would sailors of the world’s most powerful navy look like gas station attendants. No longer would U.S. Navy sailors resemble escaped prisoners. We were a country at war and our sailors would look like the warriors they were… well almost, because after all the debate, all the research, all the money spent what TFU decided we needed was: blue camouflage.
I guess it makes sense when you think about it. The standard attire for combat troops these days is camouflage, and the Navy’s main service color is blue. It never seemed to cross anyone’s mind that the only environment in which this uniform would provide camouflage was in the ocean, and that most sailors floating in the ocean would probably want to be found.
Someone once explained to me that the camouflage pattern actually worked well on a ship. “If you look at a ship from 1000 yards you can’t even make out the NWUs; they blend in perfectly.” This still seemed odd to me. I mean even if it does hide the sailors on the ship, it’s not like anyone would assume that the ship had just sailed there by itself.
Nevertheless the fleet embraced NWUs, probably because we were allowed wear it off-base and could finally stop at the store on the way home from work. Soon the NWUs could be seen everywhere, it was the standard working uniform for officer and enlisted throughout the entire Navy. It just goes to show that when our government gets down to business, identifies a problem, conducts the proper research, and implements a plan for correction, it can really develop something truly practical like the uniform that will take our Navy into the new millennium.
It was right about then we found out that the NWUs spontaneously burst into flames and were not safe to wear onboard ship. Oh well, every new development is bound to have a few bugs, right?