Army Getting New Look With Black Berets

Apparently, the armed forces are more fashion-conscious than they appear.

Besides being dressed in this season's trendy camouflage, Army personnel are taking classes on how to wear their new black berets.

After months of controversy over the hats' distinction and whether China should be allowed to manufacture them, the Army will take the lid off its new headgear on Thursday, its 226th birthday.

Soldiers are attending 20-minute courses to learn how low to position the beret on the forehead (one inch above the eyebrows), how to fold down the side (to at least the top of the ear, and no lower than the middle) and even how to avoid unsightly beret bulge.

"When worn properly, the beret is form fitting to the head," says a written list of do's and don'ts. "Therefore, soldiers may not wear hairstyles that cause distortion of the beret."

Wear your beret incorrectly and "You could look like a pastry chef," said Army spokesman Maj. Tom Collins.

Other unofficial suggestions include soaking the beret in water so it will shape to your head and shaving it with a razor to remove lint balls.

On Thursday, some 28,000 soldiers of the 8th Army serving on posts around South Korea are to don their berets in unison — then have birthday cake. Other Army bases will have similar ceremonies.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki ordered the new headgear late last year, saying the beret would be a symbol of excellence.

"When we wear the black beret it will say that we, the soldiers of the world's best army, are committed to making ourselves even better," he said.

The black berets will be worn on bases at home and overseas, while helmets and caps will be worn during deployments, training, in the field and in combat.

As Thursday approaches, enthusiasm has grown for an idea that at times appeared cursed.

"I think the only people who are still disgruntled are the ones that already wear berets," said Holmes.

Shinseki fought a wave of disapproval after announcing all soldiers except paratroopers and Special Forces would wear black berets to symbolize commitment to transform the Army into "a force for the 21st Century."

"It will be a symbol of unity, a symbol of Army excellence, a symbol of our values," he said.

Airborne units already wear maroon berets, Special Forces wear green and are known famously as the Green Berets, and Rangers wear black.

Members of the small but elite Rangers complained that making the black ones general issue would cheapen something they had worked hard to earn. The problem was smoothed over when the Rangers agreed to change their headgear to tan berets, which allowed them to keep an exclusive color while the bulk of the 1.3 million-strong Army takes the black.

Next, members of Congress complained when they learned that to get the berets in time for the birthday, the Pentagon had to use some foreign manufacturers — including Chinese suppliers — along with American ones. A review of contract procedures began in March, and the China connection became even more sensitive in April when Beijing detained 24 crew members of a U.S. spy plane that made an emergency landing on Chinese territory.

With production slowed, only about a third of the troops — some 336,000 — will have their berets by Thursday. Officials plan to continue issuing them, unit by unit, state by state, until everybody gets one. They don't know how long that will take.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.