J. David Galland: Going Soft in the Head: Beret Day at Last

You could almost hear the fanfare of trumpets and bells as the announcement went forth across the U.S. Army, Europe Command just as recently as late last week. “The day has come that we have all waited for!” proclaimed V Corps Command Sergeant-Major Kenneth O. Preston from corps headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany.

Now, for those unfamiliar with USAREUR and V Corps, this is an outfit literally drenched in the major milestones of 20th century history, spanning more than a half-century from the shores of Normandy in 1944, to the fall of the Iron Curtain 45 years later, and on through the decade of risky peacekeeping missions of the 1990s. For those who may have forgotten, V Corps boasts the legendary fighting power of “The Big Red 1” (1st Infantry Division) and the Army’s premier forward-deployed heavy tank division, “Old Ironsides” (1st Armored Division), both fine warrior units. And they are bolstered by with numerous, independent combat support and combat service support brigades, as well as a German armored division.

So what makes this the day for which we have waited so long? A day in which an entire corps of U. S. Army soldiers numbering about sixty thousand quivers with such exuberant anticipation? What is it that would cause so many soldiers, of all the career fields, of all ranks and backgrounds to literally squirm in their boots with such bubbling enthusiasm?

War and peace? A technological revolution in military affairs? Capture of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants? Nothing so insignificant!

Our new hats have arrived.

The U.S. Army, Europe Command – nearly a year after our comrades in CONUS – is finally going to don the controversial Army black beret. It seems so long ago, but it was only last spring that USAREUR fired off short-notice, taskings left and right. Forget the looming threat of terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, or dangerous peacekeeping missions in the back alleys of the Balkans. There was no time to lose with the critically important mission of determining the head size of every single Army soldier in Europe.

Military historians in the future no doubt will write thick volumes of the logistical victory, how thousands of head sizes were determined, compiled, collated, submitted and ultimately recorded at various levels of USAREUR command. Remember Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “race to the Rhine” River in 1945? That cannot come close to the Army’s audacious campaign for all soldiers in Europe to don the new black beret on the occasion of the Army's 226th birthday on June 14, 2001. Pretty catchy, eh?

Plans were made, operations orders written, more taskings leveled, a sense of electrified, command-imposed pride shot through the ranks. Some units even planned mass formations and parades for the occasion. A new chapter in esteemed military tradition was imminent. The big day rapidly drew near.

Oops. Then we missed the deadline.

Something went wrong, seriously wrong! USAREUR did not get the new hats in time after all. Stunned generals and supply clerks asked, how could this have happened? The formations were canceled, the spreadsheets with the head sizes were pigeon-holed, the jubilation and all the anticipation melted away like a bowl of ice cream on an El Paso sidewalk; the flavor was lost forever. But why?

Here investigative reporting comes to the aid of military history. The issue of the Army beret was professionally and accurately reported by many sources, in particular Pentagon correspondent Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times. His nose for news smelled something foul, and he was not off the mark: The U. S. taxpayers got bilked to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars when military procurement officials circumvented the law and the rules and awarded the production contracts to some headgear sweatshop in communist China.

To further muddy the waters on this whole issue, the Chinese at that juncture got rather possessive about one of our EP-3 Aries reconnaissance aircraft, which they detained for 10 days after a Chinese fighter collided with the Navy aircraft and it was forced to land in their country. The resulting surge of patriotism led our virtuous elected officials to declaim, This Chinese beret contract is not going to stand!

So we improvised, raiding the 75th Ranger Regiment supply room of its small inventory of black berets (they don’t need them anymore, thanks to the bold command decision to order Rangers to wear mud-brown colors). Slowly but surely, the hats trickled out into the wider ranks of the U.S. Army.

Who can forget the high-spirited new-hat donning formations that were held in Korea? Gen. Thomas A. Schwartz led, from the front, thousands of soldiers in putting on the new uniform accoutrement. Photos of this event rank right up there with the year's most historically significant Army happenings, and proved to be a morale-boosting event from Camp Bonifas on the Korean DMZ to every Army post back home in the U.S. of A. Today, CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks seems to be everywhere with his slick black beret and his desert BDU fatigues, and this bold new image in no small way sent the al Qaeda terrorists running for cover in the Hindu Kush.

Never mind that somewhere in a warehouse at a secure, undisclosed location, lie hundreds of thousands of dollars of Chinese-made black berets that will never adorn nor taint the heads of America’s soldiers.

But all that is history. Now the hats are safely made in Canada, which is better than being made in China. After all, Canada hasn't bunged up any of our reconnaissance aircraft, have they? They do produce some fine maple syrup and maple sugar candy.

But we must return to USAREUR and the common soldier serving in Europe, where a new leadership vision has dictated that the long-awaited “day of the beret” shall come to pass uncomplicated by ceremonies, grand parades or passings in review.

So let’s raise our hats, if not our glasses, on Feb. 11, when we soldiers of the European Command enter a new era with our politically-correct headgear firmly and belatedly affixed to our uniform-length haircuts.

The West is safe.

J. David Galland for PRAVDA.Ru

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