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The Marine Corps says its pandemic-related uniform shortage is easing and should end by mid-summer

Marine Corps recruits get sized during their first uniform fitting at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, April 11, 2023.
Jacob Hutchinson
/
U.S. Marine Corps
Marine Corps recruits get sized during their first uniform fitting at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, April 11, 2023.

The Marine Corps says the private companies that make military uniforms fell behind because of COVID-related labor shortages and inflation.

Marines are famously meticulous about their uniforms. Think of those ads with the Few and the Proud snapping to attention in perfect dress blues.

But for more than a year, a shortage of several types of clothing — especially everyday camouflage tops — has meant Marines haven’t been able to wear the uniforms they’re normally supposed to in some situations..

Colonel Wilfred Rivera, who oversees the Marine Corps' maintenance and supply policy, said labor shortages and inflation – lingering effects of the pandemic – affected the private companies with military contracts to make uniforms.

For a time, those manufacturers couldn’t keep enough workers. In December 2022, there was a four-month delay in the delivery of the green woodland and tan desert blouses. The Marine Corps also had shortages of other official clothing, including khaki shirts, running suits, and blue blouses, Rivera said.

The Marines responded by, among other things, reducing the number of uniforms issued to new recruits. And tailor shops near bases began mending a lot of old cammies, as they’re called, because troops often weren't able to find new ones on the shelves of base exchange stores.

The situation got so urgent the top Marine leaders had to reassure the troops that a fix was in the works.

In a regular update video last fall, Commandant Eric Smith, standing beside the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Carlos Ruiz, addressed the shortage.

“Sergeant Major Ruiz I just came back from the Indo Pacific,” Smith said. “Several themes emerged from individual Marines and units as we talked to there. The first was cammies: ‘I can't get cammies.’”

The problem, General Smith said, would linger until manufacturers were able to fill backlogged orders.

“Until that time, local commanders, battalions and squadrons are authorized to use FROG gear or desert cammies to mitigate,” he said.

FROG refers to a special uniform, “Flame Resistant Organizational Gear.”

And that “mitigating” he referred to included giving unit commanders more flexibility in deciding which clothes their Marines should wear in different situations, like training exercises.

“What we cannot have,” Smith said, “is a situation where a Marine is wearing unserviceable cammies, because that looks bad for the Corps. And we can't have a situation where that Marine is being given a hard time about those unserviceable cammies.”

The default for most duty around a base or on training exercises is supposed to be the green woodland cammies. But for some exercises now, a commander might order the use of desert cammies to shift some wear and tear from the green ones.

That's become a frequent practice on bases like Camp Lejeune, N.C., home to the Marines’ main East Coast combat force.

Lt. Col. Cassandra Stanton is a spokesperson for that command, the II Marine Expeditionary Force.

“Commanders within II Marine Expeditionary Force, mainly battalion and squadron commanders or above, have been empowered to make decisions to mitigate the service ability issues related to Marine Corps wide uniform shortfalls,” she said.

In practice, Stanton said, that means deciding which uniform their respective units should use for certain events or training exercises, which might be clothing that wouldn’t be the norm.

Civilians might ask why a uniform shortage would trouble Marines so much they’re willing to broach it with the Commandant. It’s no mystery, though, to a Marine like retired Sgt. Major Eric Lopez of Northlake Texas, a 26-year-veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan and was the top enlisted Marine in an artillery unit.

“We carry ourselves in a manner from Day One,” he said. “Once we graduate boot camp, we look good. No matter what uniform it is, we have that sense of pride.”

In other words, it’s part of the ethos, the whole idea of being a Marine. He says it’s not so much that Marines are fixated on clothing; it’s about doing everything right.

"So having a uniform that’s squared away, and we represent - whether it be an NCO, staff NCO, officer, whatever it is - we put our best foot forward,” Lopez said. "We're professional, we act professional, and we look professional."

Marines will soon be able to look squared away again all the time.

The Defense Logistics Agency — which runs the contracts for the Pentagon — has new contracts for uniforms. It changed two of the three manufacturers it uses and began paying more to cover higher costs for material and hiring and retaining enough workers to ensure deliveries.

Rivera says new recruits began to get their full allowance of uniforms again in January, and the shortages of all items of clothing are expected to fully end by July 1.

He said the Corps learned some lessons from those empty shelves.

“Our supply chain has become more resilient,” he said. “And it also helps us train like we're gonna fight by allowing those commanders to be able to make decisions at the squadron and battalion levels that allowed those units to really perform for the Marine Corps and answer our nation's call.”

By adding a little temporary flexibility to that starched esprit de corps.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

Copyright 2024 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit .

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.