Pentagon compromises on Army beret issue

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld support the Army's decision to require most soldiers to wear black berets, Wolfowitz announced last week.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced his intent last October to issue the beret to all soldiers and started a controversy among current and former Army Rangers and in Congress. The black beret has been worn traditionally only by Rangers, an elite, highly trained combat group. Under a compromise, Rangers will begin wearing tan berets.

After contention over the decision reached the White House, President Bush asked Defense to review the Army's decision and Rumsfeld asked Wolfowitz to look into the matter. After meeting with Shinseki, the deputy told reporters the headgear change is linked to the Army's plans to transform from a heavy force to a lighter, highly deployable force over the next 10 years.

"As we looked at our transformation of the entire institution," Wolfowitz explained, "we thought it important to have a symbolic and a visible demonstration that this Army was prepared for change and undertaking it." Switching to the black beret, he said, "gets this Army moving in the direction that's going to facilitate that change."

Wolfowitz and Shinseki spoke about the decision at a Pentagon news briefing Friday. Wolfowitz said that after hearing the general's explanation, he felt it was important that Shinseki present his view to the American people.

Shinseki said the decision regarding the black beret announced last October and the tan beret announced yesterday are "about change."

"The Army will change to remain the most capable and the most respected Army in the world," the general said.

A day earlier, the Army had approved a request allowing its elite Rangers to wear tan berets instead of black, he noted. Special Forces will retain their distinctive green berets. Army airborne soldiers will continue to wear their distinctive maroon berets.

"Change, as all of us know, is difficult, especially in the proud and respected institutions," Shinseki said. "But we are transforming this most powerful Army from its Cold War legacy force into an objective force that will be strategically responsive and dominant for all the broad range of missions we are asked to perform."

Throughout the nation's history, Shinseki said, many different units have worn berets. Armor, cavalry and other units have worn the black beret in the past.

"Because of that shared history in our Army," he said, "the black beret remains the most relevant color for wear Armywide today. So at the time of our decision to expand the wear of the black beret last fall, the Ranger regiment was invited to consider, if appropriate, another distinctive color that it might select to designate its formations."

The Rangers considered several options and then requested the tan beret, he said. "The Ranger tan beret will continue to symbolize that great regiment and its challenges for the 21st century," Shinseki said. "Whatever those challenges are, Rangers will continue to lead the way."

Such decisions, he noted, "are about our excellence as soldiers, our unity as a force and our values as an institution.

"This is about teamwork--teamwork that's based on that foundation of trust and confidence between soldier and soldier, between leader and led, between unit and unit serving side by side all across the Army. So this is about the magnificence of that American soldier who has been defending our country for 225 years."

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack Tilley is working on an implementation plan that should be done soon, he noted. Army leaders planned to complete the change by the Army's birthday in June. Wolfowitz noted that date might change depending on what DoD's acquisition people say is feasible.

Procurement of the black beret from contractors outside the United States also became an issue. Wolfowitz said DoD is reviewing the method of purchase. The Army set a requirement and the Defense Logistics Agency responded, he said.

"We're looking into whether DLA responded properly," Wolfowitz said.

Pressed by reporters on whether or not the Army will go ahead with the purchase contracts, Wolfowitz said, "we haven't canceled anything yet."

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