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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 11, 2002

Soldiers adjust to new berets

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Using two hands, and after repeated minor adjustments, Army Spec. Favious Strawter, 20, thought he had his new black beret positioned just right.

Army Spec. Favious Strawter tries on his new black beret during a training session at Schofield Barracks. Each soldier was advised on the Army's regulations regarding the beret's fit, position of the "flash" and the way it hangs over one side.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Then Sgt. Cheryl Wooden came over, gave it a twist, and told Strawter he needed to fold the cap down just a little farther on his ear.

Minutes earlier, Wooden had gone through the drill for a proper fit.

"It needs to stay on your head without flopping down over your eyes," she told a group of five Schofield Barracks soldiers from Bravo detachment, 556 Personnel Services Battalion.

The black cap's fit also has to be precise: one inch above the eye brow; straight across the forehead; "flash" above the left eye; touching the right ear — but not any lower than the middle of the ear.

For the Army, the adoption of the black beret has been an adjustment in more ways than one.

On Feb. 26, soldiers in Hawai'i and the Pacific finally will don the headgear that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki — who is from Kaua'i — chose as a symbol of pride and unity for his "Army of One."

The black cap also was seen as symbolizing the Army's transformation into a lighter, faster fighting force.

Shinseki had wanted all soldiers to don the beret on June 14, 2001 — the Army's first birthday of the new millennium — but the debut was marred by a flap over caps made in China and production delays.

The beret plan also came under fire from the Army's elite Rangers, whose black berets were a badge of distinction.

Eight months later, soldiers in Hawai'i areÊat the tail end of the distribution and donning schedule.

"My personal anticipation is — at last," said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael T. Etheridge of the 25th Infantry Division (Light). "I'm looking forward to the new headgear, and frankly, getting past it."

Friday's fitting session was in anticipation of the real deal: the morning of the 26th when some 1,500 aviation brigade members and elements of Headquarters and Headquarters Company ceremoniously don their black berets at Wheeler Army Airfield.

Soldiers in the rest of the state and Pacific will follow.

Spec. Richard Bell, 21, said he likes the new berets.

"It looks a lot better — especially with our Class As and Class Bs (dress uniforms)," said Bell, who is from Las Vegas. "I think it's a little bit of a morale booster — people walk a little more upright. They seem like they have more pride in their uniform."

About 20,000 black berets are being distributed for active-duty Army units in Hawai'i. The Army had 7,000 of the caps, and received about 13,000 more about six weeks ago, Etheridge said.

Some 3,000 Army National Guard soldiers and 2,300 Reservists in the state also are receiving the berets.

In the case of the Guard, donning will be at the next weekend drill, March 2 and 3.

To try to meet Shinseki's previous June 14 deadline, the Defense Logistics Agency contracted with seven suppliers for 4.8 million berets at a cost of $29.6 million.

DLA identified only one domestic source for berets, and awarded it a contract for 1.2 million of the caps. The remaining berets were to be produced by foreign sources, including more than 600,000 berets from China.

On May 1, and with the forced landing of a U.S. spy plane on Hainan Island a month earlier fresh in mind, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz issued a statement saying, "the Army Chief of Staff has determined that U.S. troops shall not wear berets made in China or berets made with Chinese content," and a recall was ordered.

In June, troops in South Korea were the first to don the black beret. Soldiers in Europe are scheduled to start wearing their black caps today.

Etheridge, who wore a black beret for 11 years as a Ranger with the 1st Battalion, carried the new version with him as a source of pride when he was an Olympic torch runner in Carmel, Calif., last month.

The Army made the decision to issue tan berets to Rangers. Special Forces will continue to wear green berets, and Airborne soldiers will keep their maroon caps.

"There are some people still with mixed emotions, and that's OK," Etheridge said, "but the decision has been made to (go to black berets), and now it's time to move on."

The soldiers at Friday's cap fitting class clearly are ready to.

"I like the style, also it's more comfortable, and as far as carrying it, you can fold it," Strawter, of Tallahassee, Fla. said. "With the (Battle Dress Uniform) hat, sometimes it gets wrinkled."

The only distinguishing element of the beret is the unit pin, or rank for officers, affixed to the blue "flash" with 13 stars for the original colonies.

Fit is another matter, and although some soldiers hear stories about soaking and shaping the wool beret — even freezing it to get a better fit — Wooden told the soldiers those are myths.

Asked if he was ready to start wearing the beret, Specialist Rodney Durant, 21, from Albrightsville, Pa., said, "Oh yeah."

"It's really nice," he said. "It's real professional looking. You feel like one of the elite."