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03-09-05, 06:26 AM

Female Marines no longer must wear men's combat gear

By Elise Castelli

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - Cpl. Mary A. Simmons says she no longer feels like she's playing dress-up in her brother's closet when she goes to work, now that the Marine Corps has introduced combat uniforms and boots designed to fit women.

"You don't look like you are wearing a sack," said Simmons, who helped field-test the new uniforms last year. "The old uniform looked like I didn't care about how I looked. But these make you look sharp and professional."

Women have served in the Marine Corps since 1918. But for the first time, they will be getting combat uniforms and boots specially designed for them. New gear tailored for women has been in the works for more than two years after female Marines voiced their concerns -- and the change is being followed by similar efforts in other military branches.

The changes represent one way the U.S. military is adapting to a fighting force in which women are playing larger and more crucial roles. Twenty-one U.S. servicewomen have been killed in action in Iraq.

"Women are taking on increasingly diverse roles in the military, and there are more of them every day," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which advocates equal treatment of women in the military. "And particularly now, when the military is stretched in many ways ... women are more important than they have ever been."

Suggestions for changes in the cut and fit of the uniforms and boots came at the first Female Uniform Symposium in 2002. The four-day meeting was called by the former Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James L. Jones, to address complaints by women about their dress, said Mary Boyt, program manager of the Marine Corps Uniform Board.

Before the changes, women's dress uniforms were available, and they had access to jackets and maternity clothing. But when it came to boots and combat utility uniforms, women wore scaled-down versions of outfits designed for men, which often left women with clothing that had too much room in all the wrong places.

In remaking the uniforms, material was removed from areas such as the shoulders and sleeves and added to the length of the blouses so they fit more comfortably over the chest and hips. Likewise, material from the waist and legs of the pants was added to the hips for comfort, said Dee Townes, Marine Corps combat utility uniform project officer.

"It's more comfortable and it gets rid of excess material that bunches under gear," Townes said. "But when you see female Marines compared to male Marines, it doesn't accentuate the female physique at all; it just fits properly."

Of 100 female Marines who tested the new design, about 90 thought it was an improvement, Townes said.

Boots also were a key issue for women. Even in smaller sizes, the men's boots were too wide to offer the proper support, causing blisters and other foot injuries, said Christie Foster, the technical adviser for footwear at Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va.

"Part of it was the shoes and part of it was the rigors of the training," Foster said. "There are foot problems across the board, and we're finding ways to alleviate some of them. Hopefully it will accommodate the female foot better with width and length, and hopefully they fit better and they will get less blisters."

The Marine Corps tested the boots in 2003 and received positive feedback from 75 percent of the 135 women who tried them.

"They felt like the shoe fit them better as they were doing the training," Foster said.


This collage showcases two new types of boots designed for women. Even in smaller sizes, men's boots were too wide to offer proper support and caused injuries.