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The History of The Military Beret
On a warm October day in 1961, in the first year of his brief presidency, John Kennedy came to Fort Bragg North Carolina primarily to review the 82nd Airborne and get a feel for the power of an American division with all its might and in all its glory. The young Commander-in-Chief also had another more pressing reason for the visit to the base. He also came to witness what the army’s newly created small elite fighting force could do. That force was the Army’s Special Forces.
Standing on the tarmac with his company was a young paratrooper, Ollie Fitzwater. “I’m down there standing at attention, all out on Pope Air Force Base and the President is driving by checking us out. Here’s John Kennedy going by and everybody is supposed to be staring straight ahead at the back of the head in front of you and every… but the pride we had for him and I wrote and told my Father, I said “Dad, I’m not supposed to do it, you are supposed to be looking straight ahead but I looked up and Jack Kennedy and I had eye contact.” To me, it couldn’t get any better. 19 years old and a kid that was almost in jail… Now I’m looking at the President of the United States.”
It was a proud moment for Fitzwater’s Special Forces comrades. They wanted to demonstrate that pride to their President with the headgear of their “Brotherhood.”
In the Army of the fifties and early sixties, distinctive uniforms for “elite” troops were strictly forbidden. But on the twelfth of October green berets of every variety were taken from their hiding places and placed on freshly shaved heads. On this day, for the first time at an official function, the Special Forces troops wore the cherished symbol of their brotherhood—the “Green Beret.” Around the world, the Green Beret was soon recognized as a symbol of a highly trained and resourceful soldier.
From that day forward, the Army’s Specials Forces would be known by friend and foe alike by their distinctive headgear. It wasn’t surprising that JFK would place his blessings upon the maverick special operations unit. To Kennedy they were glamorous, and these were the most glamorous days of Camelot The Green Beret began showing up almost ten years before Kennedy’s visit to Bragg. In 1950, the Lodge Act was passed, which provided for the recruiting of foreign nationals into the United States military. It was originally planned that half of the members of the Special Forces would be native Europeans. Many of the initial members of the 10th SFG(A) were strenuously anti-Communist. By the end of June 1952, the group had 122 officers and men. Many had been OSS, Rangers, and Airborne troopers during World War II. The group’s mission was to conduct partisan warfare behind Soviet lines in the event of a Soviet invasion of Europe.
The Green Beret was authorized for wear by Col. William E. Ekman, the group commander, in 1954. By 1955, every soldier in the unit wore a green beret as part of the uniform.
The 10th Group encountered publicity for the first time in 1955 when the New York Times published two articles about the unit, describing them as a “liberation” force designed to fight behind enemy lines. Pictures showed soldiers of the group wearing their berets, with their faces blacked out to conceal their identities. However, the Department of the Army did not recognize the beret as headgear. That changed with President Kennedy’s review.
1970’s & 80’s
In the 1970s, Army policy allowed local commanders to encourage morale-enhancing uniform distinctions, and the use of berets boomed. Armor personnel at Fort Knox, Ky., wore the traditional British black beret, while U.S. armored cavalry regiments in Germany wore the black beret with a red and white oval.
Troops of the 82nd Airborne Division atFort Bragg, N.C., started wearing the maroon beret in 1973, while at Fort Campbell, KY, the trend exploded, with post personnel wearing red, military police donning light green, and the 101st Airborne Division taking light blue as their color.
At Fort Richardson, Arkansas, the 172nd Infantry Brigade began using an olive green beret. In 1975, the Airborne Rangers got approval from the Army Chief of Staff to use the black beret as their official headgear.
Over the next few years, the whole thing got out of hand, so in 1979 senior Army officials “put on the brakes.” Army leadership allowed the Rangers to keep their black berets. In 1980, airborne troops could continue wearing the maroon version. But all other beret varieties were declared off-limits.
The black beret will become the Army standard
On Oct. 17, 2001, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced that the black beret would become standard Army headgear in the following year. The rationale was to use the sense of pride that the beret had long represented to the Rangers to foster an attitude of excellence among the entire Army as it moved forward with its sweeping transformation effort to a lighter, more deployable, more agile force. This decision, however, set off a firestorm in both the active-duty and veteran Ranger community as well as in the Army’s other two special operations camps, the Special Forces and the airborne. In 2002, the Army made the tan-color beret the official beret of the U.S. Army Rangers, and all Army soldiers began wearing the black beret. On the above date, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General, stated in a speech to the AUSA National Convention in Washington, D.C.:
“It is time for the entire Army to accept the challenge of excellence that has so long been a hallmark of our special operations and airborne units. As another step towards achieving the capabilities of the objective force, effective 14 June 2001, the first Army birthday of the new millennium, the Army will don its new headgear. The black beret will become the Army standard. Special operations and airborne units will retain their distinctive berets. But starting next June, the black beret will be symbolic of our commitment to transform this magnificent Army into a new force — a strategically responsive force for the 21st century.”
The Black Beret has been worn exclusively by Army Rangers and has become a powerful symbol of excellence earned only through extreme effort under adverse conditions. General Shinseki’s directive was quickly followed with an order that all active duty Rangers serving throughout the United States Army were to remain silent on this issue.
In general, the Rangers supported this vision of transforming the Army. They believed the entire Army should be more lethal, with increased mobility and ease of deployability. But the Rangers believed that giving soldiers a symbol which has served as a mark of distinction for others to aspire to, would merely cheapen the symbol. It would not solve the soldier’s problems of inadequate housing, need for better equipment, or increased funding for training. To the Rangers, the Black Beret, which is regarded as a powerful symbol of excellence, should be earned not handed out.
Everyone realizes the importance of symbols. The symbols of achievement which are hard earned serve as an incentive to encourage others towards excellence. That’s the significance of the Black Beret and any Beret worn in the US Army today. This is an attempt to devalue an important and effective symbol. When everyone has it, it won’t mean anything. After all, who would feel comfortable being given that which other soldiers have earned only with great difficulty?
Once again, the Army is ordering a change in headgear
Last October, photos of a colored beret designed for the newly formed Security Force Assistance Brigade first leaked online. Response to the leaked beret came swiftly, particularly from the Special Forces community. Soldiers took to the Internet to voice their opposition. Many were unhappy that brand new brigades were receiving a colored beret-like storied airborne, Ranger and SF troops, especially when initial photos of the beret looked very much like those worn by the elite Green Berets.
The debate continues within the special operative community and the army in general. We at Valorous TV want to hear what you have to say.
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