- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2001

The Pentagon has been unable to unload more than 618,000 Chinese-made black berets banned for use by American Army soldiers, and is keeping the $4 million worth of headgear in a warehouse in Pennsylvania.

The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), a Pentagon purchasing agent, had considered selling the berets to surplus stores, but officials said that option is unlikely because the made-in-China hats would probably end up on the heads of U.S. soldiers. This would make for an awkward fit since the Army chief of staff and senior Defense Department officials prohibited their use in May.

"That's why we didn't go through normal distribution and held onto them because they would migrate back to the Army," said Col. Sanford McLaurin, a DLA spokesman. "We definitely don't want that to happen."

Congressional sources said the DLA has sent feelers to foreign buyers and U.S. federal agencies, but found no takers for the berets.

The DLA's decision last year to waive a federal "buy America" law and purchase Army berets overseas, including from communist China, created an uproar among members of Congress and veterans groups. The DLA defended the decision by saying contracting with foreign plants was the only way to meet an Army deadline to have all 1.3 million Army soldiers in black berets by the service's birthday in June. In all, the Army wants an initial buy of 4.76 million berets at a cost of $30 million.

Opposition became so intense that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz announced in May that no Army soldier will wear berets made in China. Gen. Eric Shinseki, who announced the universal beret policy last October, says black berets will symbolize the Army's transformation into a lighter force able to deploy faster to world hot spots.

Col. McLaurin said selling the Chinese-made berets to foreign countries is among six possibilities suggested by an official DLA review. Each requires a business case study scheduled for completion next month before a final disposition decision is made.

The six options: destroy the berets; transfer them to other agencies; sell to foreign buyers; donate them to schools or some other non-profit organization; sell to surplus stories; or keep them in storage permanently. Col. McLaurin said the surplus store option is a long shot.

"We are now figuring out the best possible action to do with them," he said. "To be a good steward of the taxpayers' dollars you'd like to get something back for those berets."

Debate surrounding the Chinese-made beret debacle is continuing. Today, a vote is set in the House Armed Services Committee on an amendment from Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Maryland Republican. His bill, which has 50 House co-sponsors, would prohibit the Army from spending any money to buy or distribute berets until an ammunition shortfall is made up. An aide said Mr. Bartlett will propose the amendment if committee Chairman Bob Stump, Arizona Republican, does not make it part of his original bill.

Col. McLaurin said DLA is making good progress in finding American plants to make berets in addition to the lone U.S. supplier, Bancroft Cap Co. in Arkansas. He said one U.S. firm has bought the antiquated equipment needed to make one-seam berets, a style preferred by soldiers because they can ply the hat to sit properly atop the head.

Only Bancroft has the machinery in the country to make one-seam berets.

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