- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

President Bush has asked the Pentagon to review an Army decision to issue black berets to all soldiers, in response to complaints from disgruntled Rangers over losing the uniqueness of their headgear.
The commander in chief dived into the beret brouhaha after a lawmaker buttonholed him on a trip to an Army base, conveying the anger in the ranks.
Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, last fall announced universal black berets as a way to boost soldiers' morale and increase recruiting numbers. But the new policy brought a strong backlash from special-operations soldiers who say beret soldiers airborne, special forces and Rangers will lose the uniqueness of being a beret-designated elite unit. Airborne troops wear red berets; Special Forces green; and Rangers black.
Three former Rangers are now marching from Ranger headquarters at Fort Benning, Ga., to Washington to protest Gen. Shinseki's policy. They are due to arrive tomorrow and participate in a rally Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Special Forces Association, a group of 7,000 former and current commandos, issued a statement condemning the beret-for-all approach.
Now, the commander in chief has joined the debate.
"The president has asked the Department of Defense to look into that matter, and that's what they're doing at his direction," says White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Rep. Charlie Norwood, whose Georgia district includes Fort Stewart, accompanied Mr. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on a visit to the Army base last month. Aboard Air Force One, the Republican lawmaker broached the beret debate.
"I just said I was real upset with what was going on with the black beret and the Rangers," Mr. Norwood said in an interview with The Washington Times. "They had earned that. They were very upset… . I didn't blame them… . I didn't understand why we would want to do that. Nobody minds all the Army wearing a beret. Just don't choose that color… . I don't think there's much point in upsetting people who are as patriotic as they are."
Mr. Norwood, who served as an Army dentist in an airborne medical unit in Vietnam, said he wants Mr. Rumsfeld to overrule Gen. Shinseki, but understands such a move carries risks.
"You want to be careful just coming into office and start cutting the legs out from under people," he said. "You have to handle it carefully."
One of the marchers coming to Washington is David Nielsen, a Ranger from 1989 to 1992 who participated in the invasion of Panama. He saw a battle mate, James Markwell, shot and killed shortly after parachuting into Panama. He is carrying Mr. Markwell's black beret during the arduous 700-mile march.
"The black beret has to be earned and not issued," Mr. Nielsen, 30, said Tuesday as he hiked up Route 1, north of Fredericksburg, Va., facing stiff winds and subfreezing wind chill.
He described Gen. Shinseki's decision as "good intentions. Bad judgment. We understand the general idea is to boost morale. But just choose any other color but black. It's been our color for many years."
Mr. Nielsen, an English major at George Mason University, planned to reach Quantico Tuesday night and drive into Washington yesterday to visit various lawmakers. The team is scheduled to then drive back to Quantico and resume the march to Washington.
During the trek, the ex-Rangers have camped out and slept inside an accompanying four-wheel-drive vehicle at truck stops.
"We're on the home stretch," Mr. Nielsen said. "The flu just kind of went through the whole team. We feel good and are motivated better than ever. We went through the blister phase. Our feet are toughened up."
The Army spokesman at the Pentagon said yesterday that the Defense Department has yet to ask the service about the beret decision.
"We are not aware of any formal or informal requests for briefings specifically linked to the comments by Mr. Fleischer," the spokesman said.
The Rangers, elite airborne combat soldiers, are not the only ones within the special-operations community who are upset.
Ex-Special Forces soldiers also believe standard-issue berets cheapen their Green Berets.
"The awarding of elite unit headgear is given because of the high-risk business they are in," said Jimmy Dean of the Special Forces Association. "To give that headgear to every soldier in the Army is disrespectful to the soldiers who are triple volunteers volunteers for the Army, volunteers for the Airborne and volunteers for dangerous assignments and missions."
Gen. Shinseki, who is guiding the 474,000-soldier Army through one of its most far-reaching transformations, says the headgear will be a symbol for a more agile force in the 21st century.
"It will be a symbol of unity, a symbol of Army excellence, a symbol of our values," he told the annual convention of the Association of the United States Army in October.
The black beret will replace the standard green, foldable cap.
Despite the protests, the Army is moving ahead with its plan to issue black berets for all soldiers. It awarded $23 million in contracts to nine companies for 1.3 million black berets. By next month, the headgear will be shipped to units and handed out to soldiers.


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