- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2001

Thousands of Army soldiers officially don black berets today on the services 226th birthday in a celebration that has some lawmakers and veterans still thinking the new hat is not a good fit.
Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff and father of universal berets, will at first mark the occasion sans beret. A midmorning cake-cutting ceremony will be held in the spacious Pentagon center courtyard, a designated no-hat area.
The Army leader and his staff, however, will be wearing the new beret during the day as he carriers out various official functions, a spokesman said.
Gen. Shinseki announced last October that black berets would be standard issue to demonstrate unit cohesion as the Army transforms itself into a lighter, more mobile force. His goal then was to have 480,000 active soldiers, 350,000 Guardsmen and 218,000 Reserves in black berets by today.
Little did he know then the furor it would raise. A $30 million procurement predicted to go smoothly ran up against a barrage of criticism. There was a protest march by former Army Rangers and an outcry when it was learned the caps were being made in China. Then there were charges the Pentagon violated acquisition regulations, and ultimately more than 2 million berets were rejected.
Today, only 336,000 berets have been issued to about 31 percent of the total soldier force.
Asked whether the Army was disappointed by a goal missed, spokesman Paul Boyce said, "Quite the opposite. The feeling in the Army is one of anticipation. We are getting a number of phone calls from installations wanting to know when they will get the berets next."
More than 28,000 soldiers in South Korea will be among the first to officially wear the new berets because June 14 arrives 13 hours earlier there than in Washington. All soldiers there received berets, Mr. Boyce said. He declined to give any new deadlines for 100 percent coverage. He likened handouts to distributing a new weapon system. Not all units get the weapon at one time.
Opposition to the berets reached its height last winter. Special operations soldiers protested the change, saying it belittled berets worn by elite units airborne, maroon; special forces, green; and Rangers, black.
Members of Congress ridiculed the Pentagon for buying 618,000 berets made in a communist Chinese factory. And, the House Small Business Committee chastised the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) for bypassing a strict buy-America law and procuring a majority of 4.5 million black berets from foreign plants. The DLA said buying overseas was the only way it could meet Gen. Shinsekis June 14 deadline.
In the end, Gen. Shinseki reversed policy and ordered that none of his soldiers would wear berets made in China or of Chinese components. In another setback, the DLA terminated contracts for 1.5 million berets from three other foreign plants on grounds they were late or substandard. And a Pentagon inquiry found that Bancroft Cap Co., the only U.S. supplier, was using foreign components. The 1940s Berry Amendment requires military uniforms to be made in America with American materials.
The debate mellowed a bit when Gen. Shinseki struck a compromise with Army Rangers, an elite special operations unit. Rangers will keep an exclusive color headgear by switching from black to tan berets.
But opposition has not died on Capitol Hill. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, is pushing legislation to forbid the rmy from handing out universal berets until an ammunition deficit estimated in the billions of dollars is shored up.
"The bottom line is that we have troops without adequate ammunition and pilots who cant fly because of a lack of funds, so why in the world would the Army spend $23 million to change the color of a hat on the whim of one general," Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., North Carolina Republican, said in a floor speech.
"The decision regarding the change from folding green hats to black berets appears to be dying a slow death," said Mr. Jones, a bill sponsor.
The Army eventually wants every soldier to receive two berets. New recruits will get theirs upon graduation from basic training.
To date, 42 percent of active soldiers, 32 percent of Guardsmen and 10 percent of Reserves have been issued at least one beret. Some soldiers have attended classes to learn proper beret customs. Others received one-on-one training.

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