In the past decade, the blue cammies have been many things.
A radical change that put officers and enlisted in the same working uniform. A force-wide standard with accessories that the service spent well over $226 million developing and rolling out. A punch line in a sailor falls overboard joke.
The Navy's drastic move to retire the blue-and-gray Navy working uniform after only a decade opens another chapter in the Navy's continual search for safe and effective uniforms that standardize a force that ranges from submarines and shore bases to aviation squadrons and Navy SEALs.
Love it or hate it, the blue NWU has been at the core of a vast uniform overhaul — and its dumping opens the service to new possibilities, including a Coast Guard-style fleet uniform designed to stand up in a fire.
The blueberries began with a radical idea: Finding a single working uniform for everyone, enlisted and officer. It would be worn at sea and ashore, across the Navy’s many communities, and would have accessories like a fleece or the rigger’s belt to suit different jobs and climates.
When this effort began in the years after 9/11, camouflage uniforms were in style. Roughly 60 percent of the 40,000 sailors surveyed then wanted a shift to a battle-dress style uniform.
Enter Task Force Uniform: a new panel set up by then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark to design and deliver on this uniform overhaul outside the normal channels.
Clark’s successor, Adm. Mike Mullen, approved the concept in 2006 and five years and $224 million later the blue-and-gray cammies became the only authorized working uniform for most of the Navy. Sailors quickly nicknamed it “blueberries” and “Aquaflage,” among others.
Its arrival spelled the end of the utilities uniform of blue shirt and navy pants worn by enlisted and wash khakis worn by chiefs and officers.
Concurrent efforts to develop the woodland and desert versions cost the Navy another $8 million — more than any other service spent to field their latest working uniforms.
In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reviewed the plethora of “ground combat” uniforms being designed by each service. The Navy’s $3 million cost of developing the Type Is was not included as the service successfully argued the blue NWU was not a combat uniform, only a “combat style” uniform.
Work continued on NWU accessories. The service unveiled matching outerwear like the parka and trousers to shield sailors from the elements and to design a lightweight version of the uniform for wear in tropical climates.
But in 2012 came a bombshell. The uniform’s nylon fibers will melt in a fire and drip onto its wearer.
"If this sticky molten material came in contact with skin it would contribute to increased burn injury,” according to the Oct. 15, 2012, test report.
Experts also warned that the polyester in utility coveralls would melt in a fire, raising the specter that the fleet’s most common shipboard uniforms put sailors in danger.
After a comprehensive review, the fleet commanders agreed. They banned the blue NWU as the working uniform at sea, but still allowed it for occasional wear like for line-handling while returning to port. They fast-tracked the flame-resistant variant coveralls to the fleet to protect sailors who didn’t already wear flight suits or engineering coveralls, both of which are flame-resistant.
Even before the fire danger surfaced, in 2012, Navy Times reported that some Navy officials advocated ditching the blueberries. Woodland digital cammies were already worn as the primary uniform for about 50,000 sailors, but yet were paid to maintain four sets of blue NWUs they rarely took out of the closet.
The restrictions at sea added fuel to that fire.
In 2013, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus joked about the the NWU, saying "the great camouflage it gives is if you fall overboard."
The incoming CNO, Adm. John Richardson, told his transition team he wanted to slim the seabag using common sense.
“I think that there are a lot of folks who wouldn’t be sad, I guess, if Navy working uniform Type I went away,” Richardson said in an interview earlier this year.
"Let’s take a look at the whole sea bag and see if we can’t make it a little bit more sensical, where the elements of that sea bag are more suited to their mission," he added.
Navy officials say the woodland cammies are sure to be a hit with sailors. They were developed using the lessons of the blue NWUs and, if all goes according to plan, will reduce the overall number of uniforms sailors must maintain.
Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Robert Burke says efforts to put all sailors and officers in similar dress uniforms are also part of the seabag slimming project.
“Importantly, it gets us back to one working uniform, instead of the two versions that we have out there right now,” he said. “For example, 5th Fleet is wearing Type IIIs now because of the heat.”
The digital desert NWU Type IIs are typically only worn by Navy SEALs and those who support them in special operations, as they contain classified features.
Burke says the lessons learned with the blue NWUs resulted in the better designed woodland version.
“The Type III was born out of the Type I to take advantage of newer rip-stop fabric technology at the time,” Burke said. “Also, [it] brings to bear some of the stuff that we’d seen the Army benefit from when they changed their [Army Combat Uniform] with design features such as pocket placement and things like that.”
The woodland cammies will be worn the same way as the blue NWUs they’re replacing, Burke said.
“Type IIIs will be authorized on board ship in port as well as to and from work with the brief stops that are authorized today,” Burke said in the interview. “They’ll also be authorized at sea, during designated events, for example, when ships enter port — the sea and anchor details where we put people topside — but not in coveralls. We put them in the Type Is today and we’ll put them in Type IIIs in the future.”
The blueberry blouses and trousers will soon be no more, but some of the uniform’s accessories will live on.
For example, the black fleece liner can be worn with the woodland cammies. So can the black boots and socks. Desert tan or coyote brown rough-side out boots must be approved by your CO.
The Navy expects to pay around $180 million over five years to make the switch. Those costs include increasing sailors’ uniform allowances in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 to defray the costs over the next couple years. Officers, under current laws, will be required to buy new uniforms out of pocket.
“There’s no developmental costs with the Type III, it already exists,” Burke said. “So we already know it’s going to cost considerably less than the Type I did — and we’ve already got it stocked in small numbers, so it’s just an issue of ramping up production of an existing design.”
Burke expects it will take the service about a year to ramp up production and increase the stock of green cammies.
By Oct. 1, 2017, when the service plans to start issuing them in boot camp, Burke expects sailors to begin seeing them on the racks at uniform stores and Navy exchanges.
“It will be similar to the roll-out plan implemented during the fielding of the Type Is,” Burke said.
And if you are wondering about ball caps with the greenies — don’t worry, Burke said.
“We’re sensitive to how much sailors love their ball caps,” he said; the Navy approved ball caps with the blue NWU in 2014 after six years of sailor complaints.
“We authorized the coyote brown [ball cap] about a year ago to really allow those in the expeditionary combat community that flexibility, but we also authorized the blue ball cap with the Type IIIs.”
“What color a command uses will be the commander’s discretion,” Burke continued.
Sailors who already have woodland cammies are cleared to wear them as a working uniform on Oct. 1, at their CO’s discretion.
Most of the woodland cammies worn have been issued by commands to sailors. All of those uniforms will need to be handed back to the Navy. These are organizational clothing items and that means the apparel is Navy property and must be returned, Burke said.
Navy leadership wanted to maximize the use of those uniforms while still complying with the law.
“What this means is sailors do not have to turn the uniforms in when they transfer,” Burke said. “They can continue to wear them, but they’ll have to turn in any organizational issued sets once they have the ability to purchase them on their own — or at the latest, prior to the mandatory wear date of the Type IIIs in October 2019.”
The Navy has trimmed the NWU seabag requirement to two pairs. Burke said the future seabag picture is still being developed.
“We’re still in the stages of examining what that would be,” Burke said. “I think it’s the same number of sets of NWU that we’re issuing today, which is two and a similar number of whatever we settle on for the at-sea uniform.”