Rules coming in September would allow more sailors to wear ball caps with their Navy working uniforms, at their commanding officer's discretion. (MC3 Kenneth Abbate/Navy)
For most of the past 70 years, ball caps have weaved their way into Navy culture and tradition.
But there’s one place they haven’t been, at least for the most part, in the last six years: on their heads of sailors wearing the service’s most common garb, the Navy working uniform.
But that’s about to change, thanks to sailors’ persistent demands.
The popular headgear is set to return to full duty Sept. 1, with your skipper able to decide the rules at your command instead of Big Navy.
“We’re going to move forward very soon to authorize [commanding officers] to make the determination, if they want to allow their sailors to wear ball caps with NWUs as an option in place of the eight-point cover,” said Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of naval personnel and head of theuniform board, in a July 10 phone interview.
“It’s up to the COs to determine what kind of policy they want to set within their own command,” Moran said.
The reason for the change? Sailor complaints, Moran said.
Sailors have brought up bringing back command ball caps again and again at all-hands calls with Navy leaders like Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus — who finally decided enough was enough.
“When we sat down a couple weeks ago, we discussed if this was something we should consider changing,” said Moran, who added that by the time the meeting adjourned, Mabus ordered the policy changed.
“I wouldn’t say this is an issue that has everyone up in arms, but I will say that it’s come up enough for all of us that when we sat down a couple weeks ago, we discussed if this was something we should consider changing,” Moran said.
The new rules
The new rules will be simple by design, officials say. The command will make the call on whether to allow ball caps with NWUs in place of the eight-point cover. If the command gives the green light, sailors can wear the ball caps wherever they can now wear the NWU.
“We recommended, along with MCPON, to change the policy and allow COs to determine what’s best for their units,” Moran said. “As long as we stay in the uniformity, fit and function criteria for uniforms, we don’t see this as a big issue.”
The rule change doesn’t only apply to the Type I “aquaflage” gear — commands can authorize ball caps with the digital desert and woodland cammies, too, starting in September.
Officials are still working to hammer out wear rules; updated regulations will be released in a naval message.
Some sailors have called for allowing ball caps to be worn with service uniforms, as well, but Moran didn’t say in the interview whether further expansion is being considered. In the past, ball caps were worn with winter blues and summer whites by watchstanders while in port.
The start date, Moran said, gives COs and regional bosses lead time to develop rules and policies. Moran said he expects the Navy’s collective chiefs’ mess to be involved in developing the new policies and explaining the rules to sailors.
Commands are expected to have the option to set their own policies: ball cap or eight-point or both, Moran said.
“We don’t want to just throw this out there and generate confusion,” Moran said. “The goal is to make it simple, easy to understand and easy to comply with. Let me be clear: We’re not going to have separate rules for eight-point covers and ball caps. They’ll simply be interchangeable.”
Ball cap back and forth
The issue has been a contentious one since it first came up during NWU developing and testing.
Initially officials closed the door, with some saying that ball caps with a camouflage uniform looked sloppy. Some sailors saw Air Force airmen doing it and thought it looked unprofessional.
“Those sailors have told us repeatedly, ‘Please don’t adopt a [battle dress uniform-style] uniform and authorize the ball cap for wear with it,’ ” said then-Command Master Chief (SS) Robert Carroll in 2005; he was, at the time, the top sailor on Task Force Uniform.
Carroll, who has since retired, now heads the Navy Uniform Matters Office in Arlington, Virginia. But Carroll and others who resisted allowing ball caps were trying to fight the tide of Navy heritage.
Ball caps date to World War II, when leaders like Adm. Raymond Spruance helped make them famous in and out of the Navy. But even during the war, Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz nixed a proposal to make the cap a sea bag item.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the idea grew as a grass-roots effort. Many commands started adopting and wearing unofficial caps with dungarees and flight suits.
In the early 1970s, the Navy ditched the crackerjack uniforms in favor of a coat-and-tie single uniform for all ranks. With it went the iconic “Dixie cup,” which for years had been the only official headgear for E-6 and below.
With the change, a solid blue ball cap with no embroidered letters began to be issued at boot camp. Sailors replaced the generic cap with command-specific caps, and most never looked back.
Many commands started a tradition of giving sailors their first command caps when they reported aboard — after that, they’d have to buy new ones in the ship’s store, a practice that continues today at many commands.
'History and tradition'
Since NWUs entered the fleet in 2008, the wear of command ball caps has been tightly restricted.
Under the current rules, ball caps can be worn by everyone in three uniforms: coveralls, flight suits and the physical training uniform.
Only bridge watchstanders and command training teams have been able to wear ball caps with NWUs, at the CO’s discretion. Ashore, training teams can wear them during “field exercises held in restricted areas” so that safety observers and supervisors are easily recognized. But those caps can’t be worn either to or from the exercise or even “in the vicinity of the command area,” per the existing rules.
Moran expects not everyone will back the change, but informal polls show the split to be about 50-50, making officials take notice.
Ball caps get their special status at the start of a sailor’s journey. After the “Battle Stations” graduation event at boot camp, an inductee’s “RECRUIT” cap is replaced with one emblazoned “NAVY” — marking them as having earned the right to be called sailors for the first time.
“There is so much history and tradition behind the ball cap,” Moran said. “And it starts that day in boot camp when they’re no longer recruits and they become sailors and are given their ball caps.
“They look forward to that event. It’s very emotional for them early in their careers, and I think there’s unit individuality that can be honored and unit cohesion that can be established by having unit ball caps worn with the NWU.”