A senior Navy official said the uniform board is considering doing away with the blueberries, seen here, and replacing them with Type II and IIIs in the seabag. (MC3 Zachary Bell / Navy)
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The Navy's aquaflage uniform has been around only a few years, but there's a message getting louder from many rank-and-file and senior officials alike: Ditch the blueberries.
Although some sailors like the blue working uniform, plenty others have complained that it's uncomfortable in hot climates, ill-fitting and can't stand up to multiple washings.
Now, there are high-level talks among senior officials to shelve the Type I Navy Working Uniform, replacing it fleetwide with the woodland pattern Type IIIs or a combination of the woodland NWU and the desert-pattern Type IIs.
"There are some in the Navy's leadership who think it makes sense to eventually shift everyone into the Type III or possibly a mix of the Type II and Type III, sometime in the future," confirmed a senior Navy official who is also a member of the uniform board. The official would speak to Navy Times only on condition of anonymity.
In speaking to deck-plate sailors, this official said they are asking for a better-fitting uniform, and many praise the NWU Type II and Type III, which are made of a thinner material.
"The fit of the Type III is so much better," said Logistics Specialist 1st Class (EXW) Jennifer Almero in an interview with Navy Times. "It's something in the sizing and how it's cut that's different."
Almero is from the San Diego-based Mobile Expeditionary Support Unit, which falls under Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. Sailors under this command wear the NWU Type III as their full-time working uniform.
Logistics Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Mark Needham, also with the MESU, agreed that the Type III uniform fits better. He also said it stands up better than the Type I after repeated washings.
"Both uniforms are wonderful in that you can pull them out of the dryer and wear them," Needham said, "But the Type III is a lighter uniform to begin with, and it doesn't seem to be susceptible to fading as much as the blue camo does over the long haul. The bottom line is the Type IIIs just seem to be put together better."
Ending the wear of blue NWUs would also save the Navy millions, the high-ranking official said.
Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, the chief of naval personnel and head of the uniform board, wouldn't comment on the discussions to kill the blue NWUs but said that changes to the Navy's uniform are fleet-driven and don't come from Washington.
"That's the way it's set up now, and it works very well," he said. "We take input from the fleet through the fleet commanders on uniform issues. If the fleet feels something is necessary or needs to change, they provide the input, and the uniform board will work those proposals and work to provide it if we can."
No formal proposal has been made to ditch the so-called "blueberry" uniform that rolled out in January 2009, though the idea is definitely under discussion among members of the uniform board.
"It's an idea that makes sense on many different levels," the official said. "I can say it's been socialized at the highest levels and has some interest going forward — but there are issues to be worked through, so it's not something that will happen tomorrow, either."
If adopted, the plan would mean the Navy would switch the required seabag working uniforms from the four sets of blue NWUs and instead issue four sets of the Type III woodland pattern, the official said. Another idea is that sailors would get two sets each of the Type IIs and Type IIIs.
"That's how the Marine Corps does it," the official said. "And they switch between those uniforms twice a year when the nation goes on and off daylight saving time. There's no reason we can't do that."
And as for the color of the uniforms, the official said there's no requirement for the Navy's working uniform to be blue in color, either.
"The idea was that the digital blue, gray and black pattern would simply hide dirt and wasn't meant to camouflage sailors onboard ships," he said.
Still, that fact has been the butt of many jokes about the aquaflage pattern, including a photo of a sailor blending in to blue terrazzo shipboard deck that has made the rounds on blogs and email.
Blueberries aren't ‘tactical'
"For those who've worn the Type III, the uniform is amazing and a significant improvement all around over the Type I," the official said. "But along with better wear features, it's also a tactical uniform, something the Type I is not."
That fact was made clear in 2010, when Congress, upset that every service was developing its own flavor of camouflage, wanted the Government Accountability Office to take a deep dive into the DoD-wide uniform madness to see how much money was being spent.
GAO officials excluded the cost of the blue uniform because it was not technically a "camouflage utility uniform." The Navy explained to the GAO that the Type I wasn't meant to camouflage anyone onboard ship and instead was just a "camouflage stylized uniform." The GAO was satisfied with that argument.
As a result, its assessment on uniform spending did not include the more than $224 million that went into producing and procuring the Type 1.
The Navy needs to rethink past policies and instead start issuing a tactical uniform as a seabag working uniform, the Navy official said.
"We've always come at this uniform issue differently from the other services," the official said. "When our sailors need a tactical uniform, it's not considered a seabag item and instead it's issued to them as what we call ‘organizational clothing.'"
Organizational clothing items are uniform articles that are officially "loaned" to the individual for specific jobs. That includes the non-blue NWU types, flight suits and jackets, and foul-weather jackets.
Issuing tactical uniforms in the seabag has the potential of saving the Navy millions, the official explained.
According to Navy Uniform Regulations, all enlisted sailors are required to maintain their complete compliment of uniforms that the service issues — including the four sets of blue NWUs, because they are considered seabag items.
With seabag items, enlisted sailors are given an initial issue and then required to maintain those uniforms with the money the service pays them in their annual clothing allowance.
Not so with organizational clothing. When sailors wear out those items, they simply turn in the worn-out item to the supply office and get new ones.
This, in a sense, creates a uniform unfairness issue, the official said.
Thousands in the Navy wear organizational clothing full-time, including Seabees, SEALs, explosive ordnance disposal sailors and divers.
In these communities, most sailors won't ever wear the Type I.
Others, such as units attached to Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, won't wear their blueberries as long as they're on the NECC tour of duty.
By the rules, all these sailors are required to maintain their blue NWUs — all four sets — and they are compensated for it. But in practice, because they never wear those uniforms, they simply pocket that portion of their uniform allowance. In 2012, that amounted to roughly $215 of extra cash per person, based on Navy Times calculations.
Given that Navy officials say roughly 50,000 sailors wear either the Type II or III uniforms in their current jobs, this means as much as $10 million in uniform allowance was given out this year to replace blue working uniforms that didn't need replacing.
If those Type II and III uniforms were to become these sailors' seabag items, they would get an initial issue and then replace them with the clothing maintenance allowance. That would mean savings for the Navy on two fronts.
According to the Defense Logistics Agency, so far in fiscal year 2012, the Navy has spent just more than $10 million to purchase Type II and III uniforms to outfit the service.
"Switching everyone to the Type III or a combination of II and III, you will save the Navy money and simplify the seabag significantly," the official said. "Buying the uniforms in larger quantities also drives the cost down significantly."
But on the down side, the official added, the Navy would take a financial hit if it quickly decides to stop using the blue cammies.
That's because DLA currently has stocks of 290,000 Type I blouses and 399,000 trousers — a combined total of $23.3 million invested.
To maintain those levels of uniforms on hand, DLA said it annually procures about 86,000 blouses and 95,000 trousers.
If the Navy made the decision to stop buying the Type I uniforms, it would take the service a few years of wear to get the stocks down.
Corps' change of heart?
Something else that would have to change: current policy, which limits who can wear the Type II uniform.
In January 2010, when the new woodland and desert uniforms were officially announced, senior Marine Corps officials objected to widespread wear of the Navy's Type II uniform, saying it was too much like their own MARPAT desert pattern and color. They had no such problem with the Type III, as it is predominantly green, and the Marines' woodland pattern is browner.
But based on feedback from the Corps' new top enlisted leader, Marine officials may be more amenable.
"I encourage all services to research our [Marine pattern] during their tests to field a new combat uniform," said Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett in July, referring to the Corps' highly rated desert and woodland digital design. "We have the best camouflage pattern in the world, and I believe that it helps save the lives of our Marines and sailors."
LS1 Needham has been wearing only a woodland uniform for the past year. Before that, he was stationed on the amphibious platform dock Dubuque.
Overall, he said, Type III is simply a better uniform than the blue NWUs, and if given the choice when heading back to the fleet, he said he would want to keep his woodland cammies.
"Coming from the amphib Navy, I'm used to seeing the Marines wearing their uniforms while onboard ship and have no problem with that," Needham said. "I'd like to see the Navy either incorporate the improvements in the Type IIIs into the Type Is, but if I could choose between the two right now, I'd take the Type IIIs without a doubt."