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History of the Black Beret

I returned last week from a visit to several CONUS installations, and I was reminded again of how little many of our soldiers appear to know about our transition to the black beret.

Sometimes, I think I’m alone in talking about this. I would ask that each of you read this, pass it along to as many fellow leaders as possible and then get out and start talking about the beret and what’s right for the Army.

In recent months, it has become increasingly apparent that opinions on the beret are nearly as numerous as the myths and misconceptions surrounding both the beret’s history and our reasons for switching to it.

I’ve made it a point to talk about the beret with nearly every group of soldiers I’ve spoken with in my travels. Typically, I’ve asked for a show of hands from people who think the black beret is a bad idea. As a rule, about 20-30 percent of the soldiers raise their hands.

Then, nearly every group has shared some good-natured laughs with me as we take a look at what soldiers really know about the topic.

“What kind of units wore the black beret from 1973-1979,” I begin asking the soldiers who raised their hands.

“What was the first unit in the Army authorized to wear black berets?”

“True or false — Rangers wore berets in World War II?”

“True or false – soldiers graduating from Ranger School are awarded a Ranger tab and a black beret?”

“What is the only course in the Army where soldiers are awarded berets upon graduation?”

“How many years has the Army talked about putting every soldier in a black beret?”

I think it safe to say that less than 20 percent of the soldiers who raised their hands can answer even one of these questions.

Beginning as early as 1924, I tell these groups, armor units in the British Army began wearing black berets for a few very simple reasons. For one thing, the color hid the grease spots tankers often left on their hats when putting them on and taking them off as they worked on their vehicles. Also, the beret allowed tank crewmen to comfortably wear radio headsets and push their faces against the tank’s telescopic sights.

Although historians say a few Ranger units unofficially wore black berets during the early 1950s and again during the Vietnam War, the Center of Military History can find no photos or documentation indicating World War II Rangers were ever authorized to wear berets of any color.

The headgear did not become an official part of the Ranger uniform for another 25 years. In 1975, the Army authorized two newly formed ranger battalions to wear black berets – one year after both armor and cavalry units around the Army began wearing black berets

Many soldiers say, “oh yeah,” when I remind them that our Opposing Force units at the National Training Center, Joint Readiness Training Center and Combat Maneuver Training Center have worn black berets for years. Further, more than a few eyebrows go up when I explain to soldiers that armor and cavalry units throughout the Army were authorized black berets from 1973-1979.

A few months back, one old cavalryman even told me that when Chief of Staff Gen. Bernard Rogers decided in 1979 that only special operations and airborne units would be authorized berets, tankers in his unit objected to the decision and burned “their” black berets in protest.

It is also interesting to note how many soldiers believe that Ranger and Airborne School graduates receive either black or maroon berets upon completing their respective courses. Further, very few soldiers realize that Special Forces Qualification Course graduates are the only troops in the Army awarded a beret and tab when they complete their school.

Thus far in talking to literally thousands of soldiers about the black beret, only one person – a sergeant at Fort Gordon, Ga. – knew that the Army’s leadership had considered transitioning the entire force to black berets for more than a dozen years. Each time, the decision was deferred because of other priorities.

During his first year as Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki concentrated on building up momentum for our ongoing transformation. Only in his second year as chief did he decide the time was right for us to wear black berets.

At the end of my beret quiz, I ask soldiers to tell me what they know about the Army and our ongoing transformation. I’m proud to say most of us show a better grasp of transformation than we do the history of the black beret.

As I explain it, Gen. Shinseki’s intent with transformation is to prepare the Army for the diverse missions our country is now asking us to perform.

Prior to Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait in a matter of days and stopped his forces at the border just north of oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia. Mysteriously, he then sat and watched for six months as we reinforced our rapid deploying airborne units. In the end, the mass of our assembled combat power allowed us to achieve a quick, decisive victory.

For the foreseeable future, there will remain in the world a number of countries and leaders who will think it wise to challenge the United States, our interests and our allies. And, I tell soldiers, I think it’s a sure bet that most of these folks watch CNN.

Nobody will ever know for certain why Saddam stopped when he had our forces outgunned and outnumbered. Far more certain is the fact that the next dictator to challenge us won’t repeat Saddam’s mistakes. When future foes mobilize their forces, they will likely move quickly while hoping they can achieve their objectives before we can deploy our forces.

To be ready for that kind of showdown and to better prepare us for missions like those in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, Gen. Shinseki is transforming the Army into a force that’s more agile, deployable and lethal.

It may be something of oversimplification, but I tell soldiers that – in the end – transformation will result in heavy units that are more deployable and agile and light units that are more lethal and survivable. The result will be warfighting formations that can deploy about as fast as today’s light units but pack a lot more firepower and mobility.

So, as we move toward that goal, I ask groups to name the one uniform item that could logically symbolize that transformation . . . one item that has, over the years, been associated with both heavy armor units as well as the best light infantry unit in the world.

Bingo . . . the light starts to come on as they connect the intent and importance of transformation with the diverse and historic heritage of the black beret.

Change is never easy, I tell soldiers, and I understand that. It’s especially difficult in an organization as large and grounded in history and tradition as the Army. But, I also understand that we must change if we are to be ready for the challenges that await us in this new century.

I tell people that, for the most part, our military has done a poor job of envisioning and preparing for the next war. Typically, we have trained and equipped our military based on what was true in the last war while failing to see the coming of a different conflict that was often less than a decade or two away.

These mistakes have been costly – they have been paid for in the lives of our soldiers as we have often lost early battles in a number of wars. It is a testament to the greatness of our country and our military that we learned quickly in these conflicts and adjusted our equipment, training and tactics and achieved victory in the end.

But, it makes sense to me to begin changing with the world and design formations that are better suited for future conflicts. Not only could this make the difference in these yet-to-be battles, but it might let us avoid them entirely as future enemies gauge our capabilities and decide their best course of action is to avoid a fight with us at all costs.

The last question I typically ask soldiers is, “how many of you have ever celebrated the Army’s birthday?” Sadly, I would tell you that maybe 25 percent of them indicate that they have.

That, I tell them, is about to change. In the future, we’re going to take pride in the Army’s heritage to the point that if there’s two soldiers in a fighting position on June 14, I expect them to put a match in a piece of MRE pound cake, blow it out and then sing “Happy Birthday” to the Army.

In recent years, the Army has been the silent man of the Defense Department as we have quietly gone about doing our nation’s business without calling a lot of attention to ourselves and our accomplishments. There’s something to be said for modesty, but I tell our soldiers we deserve to flex occasionally and tell people who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.

I would hope that these thoughts would add a bit to soldiers’ understanding of both the Army’s transformation and the change to the black beret.

Thank you for listening and have a great Army day.

SMA Jack L. Tilley

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