By Jim Katzaman, MCSC Corporate Communications
As a prototype for form follows function, the Marine Corps combat utility uniform blazed a trail of innovation among its peers from sister services, still winning accolades more than a decade after the first stitch was sewn. Hard to see, even repellant to insects, few pieces of cloth can claim such versatility.
The uniform’s latest recognition came in April when its design team received the 2013 Millson Award from the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. It was the first time the industry-leading AATCC presented such an award to a government entity, the result of years of evaluations to show the utility uniform was every bit as good as advertized for Marine comfort and protection.
Marine Corps team members receiving the award were retired Lt. Col. Gabriel Patricio, Infantry Combat Equipment product manager, known as PdM ICE, at Marine Corps Systems Command, Quantico, Va., and Gunnery Sgt. John Heisterman, chief instructor, Scout Sniper School, Training and Education Command at Quantico. They had collaborated with scientists at the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, which shared in the Millson Award.
The road to the revolutionary outfit began in 2000 when the Commandant of the Marine Corps directed MCSC to conduct research and development for a new combat utility uniform. He directed that the uniform was to cost no more than the current camouflage utilities at that time and reduce overhead costs of 19.5 percent as charged by the Defense Logistics Agency.
The research was to include enhanced durability and overall functionality, plus incorporate better camouflage, cover and concealment and infrared deflecting. Additionally, the uniforms were to be permanent press and they had to be uniquely Marine.
The tasking to MCSC was natural. The command is the Department of the Navy’s systems command for Marine Corps ground weapon and information technology systems. It is also the Marine Corps commandant's agent for acquisition and sustainment of warfighting systems and equipment.
In that role, the MCSC specialists at PdM ICE teamed with scientists at Natick and worked closely with Marine Corps battlefield experts.
Steve Davis, PdM ICE Combat, Cold Weather and Dress Clothing Team lead, said the MCSC-Natick team took the Commandant’s directive to heart, starting from the ground up, throwing out previous uniform concepts to let function dictate the final form.
“Old utility uniforms had pockets in the front, but nobody used them,” Davis said. “The new uniform had no pockets or flaps or any other traditional but wasted material. Every pocket, flap and button weighs up to a few ounces. Ounces can add up to pounds, and each pound saved lightens the load on the Marine.”
While stripping wasteful material, the team concentrated on the uniform’s appearance or lack of it. Their goal was to create a “counter surveillance camouflage patterns for a variety of military environments.” Conventional camouflage patterns were out; in came a visually disruptive digital design, now known as the Marine pattern, or MARPAT. The specialized techniques for printing the camouflage pattern system onto fabric make it harder to see uniforms in both human visible light and near-infrared light.
“We worked together with Natick to come up with a unique design,” said Col. Michael Manning, who succeeded Patricio as PdM ICE. “It’s infrared-capable, meaning that it dissipates the IR image. The pattern itself does ocular interference. It tricks the eye so you don’t see the uniform at all.”
Initial fielding of the combat utility uniform began in 2002, and team recognition soon followed. Their work resulted in the award of three patents; one was for the utility uniform design features (2002), another for the camouflage pattern (2004) and one that combined the two elements for a holistic award (2004).
If the newly created uniform had only blended into the background better than any previous design and challenged IR sensors as no other piece of apparel had ever done, Steve Davis said that would have been a major achievement. Yet, there was more to come.
In late 2003, as Davis recalled, about 80 Marines contracted malaria while conducting operations in Liberia. That resulted in an additional uniform requirement to defend against insect-borne threats. The design team’s solution was to impregnate the uniform with permethrin, a common synthetic chemical, widely used as an insecticide and insect repellent.
“Permethrin is non-toxic to humans, but insects don’t fare so well,” Davis said. The hard-to-see, tough-to-sense, disease-preventing combat utility uniforms were fielded starting in 2006.
As Marines ventured out in their new uniforms, AATCC patiently watched from afar as the technology was field tested by about 450 Marines to evaluate camouflage effectiveness and user acceptance. The association noted that “the dyes used are based on acid and vat varieties to produce the correct colors in both visible and near-infrared light spectrums. Coloring for both the woodland and desert patterns includes at least four different shades from dyes.” The result, in so many words, was that the camouflage worked as the design team predicted.
This presented a pleasant final problem for AATCC and the combat utility uniform design team. Their product qualified for the Millson Award. Established in 1979, it recognizes an outstanding invention’s merits and its impact on the U.S. textile, fiber, polymer and medical industries. However, the association had never made an award, which comes with $1,000 cash, to a government entity, which cannot accept such remuneration. The solution, as proposed by Colonel Manning, was for AATCC to donate the $1,000 direct to the Semper Fi Fund.
With that, the association presented the MCSC and Natick team the 2013 Millson Award for their combat utility uniform innovations and achievements.