Velcro not great for sandbox play (or war), says military

What could a mother of small children offer to the U.S. military? Some feedback, perhaps, about how badly hook-and-pile tape -- the generic term for Velcro -- holds up in a sandbox. In 2004, the Army switched to hook-and-pile tape for a number of the things formerly secured by the ancient technology of buttons and needle-and-thread, including pocket and pants closures, name patches, rank insignia, and (in a decision that always baffled me), the little U.S. flag patch.

In Afghanistan and other sandy places where so many U.S. troops are now stationed, however, there is a problem with hook-and-pile tape: it's highly ineffective when filled with sand. Pants falling off and important items falling out of pockets makes for an Army that is hard to take seriously. And if the soldiers have figured out how to clear the hooks and piles with creative solutions -- a small weapons cleaning brush works very well, says the Army's website -- it's also noisy. This can be, well, inconvenient in battle situations.

So, after many complaints, suggestions and a long field test, the Army is going back to buttons for pants closures and pockets; starting in August, soldiers headed toward Afghanistan will have to once again recall their skills in securing and mending buttons. The hook-and-pile tape will still be used for insignias and name patches, prompting one soldier to post on the Army's website, "Am I going to change my name and join a different army?"

I asked my husband about this -- he's stationed in Kuwait, and has been remarking over the last few weeks how many sand storms they've been experiencing. His duty day looks different from the average soldier stationed in Afghanistan, though, as he spends much of his time driving large armored vehicles very fast down Kuwaiti highways. He prefers the hook-and-pile tape, telling me that, when it's cold in the field and you're wearing gloves, it's a lot easier to open a Velcro closure than a button one; and if you need to get more ammo, speed and dexterity are important.

I had to laugh, because he just doesn't wear gloves in Kuwait. But most of his field training (like that of many of the U.S. soldiers) has occurred in the rather colder conditions of the Pacific Northwest and American Midwest -- where mud might occasionally be a problem, but not blowing sand. I have to wonder if the rank-and-file who made the initial decision to use hook-and-pile tape may have had these as their own concerns.

He calls it a toss-up; having ammo fall out of your pockets is, after all, more dangerous than not being able to access it quickly. And there's the problem of buttons being far easier to fix on the field (even if you do have to teach soldiers basic sewing skills -- something they've had to know for centuries). Many times, he tells me, gear must be replaced when the hook-and-pile tape fails, because it's easier to procure a whole new garment than to sew on new hook-and-pile tape.

With military costs continuing to rise and taxpayers clamoring for relief, perhaps the solution that means soldiers can fix their own gear -- and generally don't have to spend their very little spare time inventing new ways to clean sandy pile tape -- is the most sensible one. It's what that frugal mom with kids in a sandbox might have suggested. As to why the Army chooses to Velcro name plates and U.S. flag patches, I think, the answer will have to remain a military secret.
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