- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

Women in the military in recent years have not always experienced a good fit.

The Pentagon's women's advocacy committee says there is not sufficient variety of uniforms for female personnel, who sometimes must put on ill-fitting pants and shirts, boots designed for males and flight suits that leave them dehydrated.

A "working copy" of the latest report from the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) asserts "There is inequity between men and women in the cost, availability and fit of uniforms, including footwear."

The panel of 36 civilians, including five men, is seeing its words heeded by the Defense Logistics Agency, which has set up a special task force that works like a special fitting room for female service members. The agency says the problem is that a relatively low demand for women's dress uniforms means items are not always in production.

The Army, meanwhile, acknowledges its 136 different boot sizes are not specifically made for women. But it will special order boots for hard-to-fit feet.

"Women's feet are not just smaller than men's. You've got generally narrower heels and generally higher arches," said Navy Capt. Barbara Brehm, until recently DACOWITS' military directory.

The DACOWITS report describes the ill fit this way:

"Focus group interviews indicate that women are required to buy more uniform pieces, that the cost of women's uniform pieces often exceed the cost of men's uniform pieces, and that women's uniforms are frequently not available for immediate purchase. Women's uniforms are not made in all sizes to fit the varied shapes of women's bodies, requiring additional and costly tailoring. Women are required to wear men's boots causing health problems, such as stress fractures. Female flight crews wearing standard issue flight suits suffer dehydration because of difficulty in voiding in flight."

Capt. Brehm said female aviators on long flights have difficulty using a special sanitary system, causing some women to overcompensate by not taking in fluids. The easy fix, she says, is to lengthen the one-piece flight suit's zipper.

"Some individuals didn't drink lots of water before flights," Capt. Brehm said. "We want every one to drink water in the amounts they need to stay sharp… . It's really a fixable minor issue. It's not going to be a high cost."

To help women fit better into Navy whites, Army green and Air Force blue, the Pentagon first set up the Military Uniform Task Force, with representatives from manufacturers and DACOWITS.

Work began with one understanding from the services: Changing a uniform's traditional look was off-limits.

The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which buys military clothing, said there is a low level of demand for women's items, meaning production lines only make those items intermittently. The solution is to create "more flexibility on the production line," said a DLA statement in response to questions from The Washington Times.

"All the services beginning with the Navy in 1993 have adopted a [Defense Department] Women's Sizing System that includes juniors, misses and petites and is based on commercial items having the same dimensions," the statement said.

The Pentagon spends hundreds of millions annually in dress uniforms alone for 1.4 million active duty personnel, about 14 percent of whom are women. It spends, for example, $5.6 million on 200,000 pairs of women's dress shoes and $16 million for the same item for men.

The issue is important to the Pentagon since the percentage of women in the force is expected to grow. In the 1990s, females took on more responsibilities in combat aircraft and ships, and in support jobs closer to the front lines.

Lt. Col. Russ Oaks, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said that while the service does not procure female-specific boots, it buys a wide variety of sizes. The Army will special-order boots for hard-to-fit feet and includes female soldiers in boot tests.

"It is true that the cost of the female clothing bag is greater than the cost of the male clothing bag," Col. Oaks said. "However, female enlisted members receive a larger clothing allowance to compensate for this disparity. Neither male nor female officers receive a clothing allowance."

"Establishing proper fit of the various female uniforms for all women is a responsibility the Army takes very seriously," he said.

"The Army recently completed the last phase of a complete resizing of the female dress uniform. Slacks, skirts and shirts were resized by 1996, and the jacket was resized by 1999," he said. "The sizing is based on body measurements versus standard sizing. For example, shirts now contain bust and waist measurements in addition to the standard size. Pants contain waist and hip sizes in addition to the standard size."

A 1999 DACOWITS report focused on uniform shortages at one post: the Cherry Point, N.C., Marine Corps Air Station.

The report summarized complaints of female Marines about their service's base at Camp LeJeune, saying it "does not stock all maternity sizes; therefore, after six months some Marines are unable to stand in formation. It is unclear to Marines what the difference is between 'enlisted' and 'officer' skirts, so they suggest 'a skirt.' There are complaints of cheap fabric, but high cost… . Trouser utility pleats don't fit over female hips."


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