Camouflage costs lead to military dispute


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    Winslow Wheeler is a defense analyst at the Project on Government Oversight.

    - Nancy Marshall-Genzer

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    Gunnery Sgt. Mitchell McKenzie says the Marine camouflage pattern makes it easy for him to stand out as a Marine.

    - Jason Slotkin

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    Corporal Mark Gray says he worked hard to wear the unique Marine combat uniform.

    - Jason Slotkin

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    The new camoulage pattern was a big hit at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.

    - Jason Slotkin

Have you  ever been to a party and found  that someone else is wearing the exact same outfit you’ve got on? Well, then you know how the top brass at the Pentagon feels. In the late 80s and throughout the 90s, there were just two camouflage uniforms for all U.S. troops. Green for when you were in the forest, and brown for the desert. The Marines were the first to break the mold. 

How could the few and proud wear the outfit of many? Unthinkable. In 2002, the Marines developed their own camouflage pattern. It was digital -- small pixels instead of big, clumsy blotches.

The new camo was a big hit at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Today, Marines like Corporal Mark Gray can’t imagine wearing anything else.

“I graduated from boot camp wearing that uniform, something I worked so entirely hard for," he says. "I can’t see myself wearing a Navy uniform or Army uniform, or anything like that. It’s just part of who I am now.”

The new Marine combat uniforms made everybody else look dated, like they were stuck in the 90s.  So, the Army, Navy and Air Force started an arms race to avoid uniformity in uniforms -- at all costs. The Government Accountability Office says more than $12 million was spent just designing the new combat camo. There are now at least 10 different uniforms. The original justification for the multiple uniforms was they improved morale, created esprit de corps. 

Congressman Bill Enyart has a different take. “The esprit de corps argument is quite frankly, silly," he says. "It’s a couple of kids in a sandbox arguing over whose truck is better.”

Enyart wants those kids to play nicely -- and share. The Illinois Democrat, and veteran, introduced legislation that mandates one camouflage pattern for everyone, in two colors -- going back to green for the woods and brown for the desert. The various military branches would not be able to come up with a new camo design, unless they were willing to share it with everybody else.  Enyart’s amendment is part of the defense-spending bill passed by the House. The Senate is considering something similar.

Of course, not everybody’s happy. Winslow Wheeler is a defense analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. He says Congress is micromanaging the Pentagon and should focus on big reforms that would save real money.

“This is not going to save any money to speak of," he says. "Congress is studiously avoiding all of the important budgetary and effectiveness issues in this budget just as they have for a long time.”

Issues like closing unneeded bases, and overhauling the military’s very expensive healthcare system. Congressman Enyart says you have to start somewhere. His amendment could save as much as $250 million. Yes, just a blip in the budget. But maybe a first step in taming inter-service rivalry that ends up costing taxpayers billions. 

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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