- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee urged Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday to suspend Army plans to hand out black berets to every soldier in time for the service's birthday June 14.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, released his letter to Mr. Rumsfeld after meeting with ex-Army Rangers who are protesting soldiers receiving the same black beret they have exclusively worn for 40 years.

"I am requesting a 'stand down' to permit officials of the Bush administration an opportunity to review the policy and report to you," Mr. Warner told Mr. Rumsfeld. "This was a decision made during the Clinton administration which I believe, in light of the outpouring of conscientious concern from both active and former soldiers, deserves a second look by the Bush administration."

In an interview, Mr. Warner stopped short of saying the policy should be reversed. "The letter clearly does not render a judgment. It simply renders a process," he said.

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said the department had yet to receive the letter and would therefore have no comment.

The letter marked the first time such a senior member of Congress has called on the Pentagon to, in effect, overrule Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff. Gen. Shinseki wants procurement to continue uninterrupted. He announced the beret policy last October, saying the universal head wear will symbolize the Army's transition to a lighter, more agile force.

His decision brought a torrent of protest from ex-Rangers and other soldiers. The brouhaha was further inflamed last week when The Washington Times reported the Pentagon had waived a "buy America" law to allow the purchase of over 660,000 of a planned 3.8 million berets from factories in communist China.

"I am also troubled by reports of the manner in which the berets are being procured," Mr. Warner wrote.

Last week, three former Rangers completed an arduous, 750-mile protest march from Fort Benning, Ga., home of the 75th Ranger Regiment, to Washington. They and about 200 others staged a rally Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial.

"I just wiped the tears off my face," said marcher and former Ranger David Nielsen, after Mr. Warner handed him the letter. "I couldn't believe it. I thought he was going to tell us to cool down."

He said he offered Mr. Warner a black beret, but the senator turned it down, saying, "I'm not going to take it because I didn't earn it."

The Rangers are a specialized airborne contingent of 3,000 troops. They began wearing the black beret in 1951. Twenty years later, it became their official headgear, one that distinguishes them from Special Forces' Green Beret and Airborne's maroon.

"I believe there is sufficient evidence that many on active duty and many Army alumni are concerned that this proposed change of headgear will lessen the historic recognition of a special professional qualification," Mr. Warner told Mr. Rumsfeld.

Mr. Warner, a former sailor and Marine, added one caveat. Unless the procurement program, which began last December, is too far along to be stopped, he wrote, "I strongly recommend that you suspend procurement of the black berets until the next secretary of the Army can complete his review of the policy.

Gen. Shinseki made the decision during the tenure of Louis Caldera, who left office Jan. 20 with the outgoing Clinton administration.

Sources say President Bush plans to name Thomas E. White, a retired Army one-star general and Texas energy executive, as the next secretary.

An Army spokesman last week said the service has no plans to stop the beret program.

Mr. Warner's statement is the latest in a series of letters from Senate and House members criticizing the black beret policy.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, wrote to Mr. Rumsfeld on Friday, saying, "Taking the black beret away from Rangers complicates the laudable goal of creating esprit d'corps in the Army."

The Times reported last week that the Defense Logistics Agency, the military's buying agent, bypassed a law that requires the Pentagon to buy clothing made in American factories of American components. The agency said it needed to buy most black berets overseas to meet Gen. Shinseki's June 14 deadline.

The berets are being made in factories in China, India, Sri Lanka, and other Third World countries. One U.S. manufacturer is producing them.

American apparel representatives contend their industry could have competed for contracts if they had more time.

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