A burning concern

The Corps in Iraq bans synthetic clothing off-base over risk of burns

By C. Mark Brinkley and John Hoellwarth
Times staff writers

"Recent lab testing confirmed that the current combat utility uniform provides a degree of protection from short-duration burn events," Landis said. Even so, it's not like the protection offered by the vest and ballistic plates, and those don't cover synthetic boxers, panties and socks. "When you have an incendiary IED, the flash could spread to other areas not covered by the OTV."

Imagine a molten glob of melted plastic running down charred skin, oozing into your pores like a lava tattoo. That's your synthetic, designer T-shirt in hell. Or, after all hell breaks loose, during a roadside bomb attack or a rocket-propelled grenade ambush. Same difference.

Designed to keep people super-cool in sweltering heat, man-made fabrics generally do just the opposite when the temperatures really soar. Expose them to fire and they often melt like birthday candles, seeping into the burnt flesh and making a bad injury even worse. The possibility is disturbing enough that Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, forward commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, which oversees all Marines in western Iraq, has ordered his troops to stop wearing the fabrics during off-base tactical operations.

"This decision was made due to extensive burn injuries resulting from service members who were victims of improvised explosive devices," said 1st Lt. Antony Andrious, a spokesman for Zilmer. "There are incidences where Marines wearing synthetic athletic clothing have received severe injuries due to the apparel adhering to the skin when exposed to intense heat from explosions.

"The commander made the decision to disallow Marines from wearing this type of clothing while on patrols, convoys, and anything else that entails activity 'outside the wire.'"

It was unclear as of April 14 when Zilmer made his decision.

With daily temperatures on the rise, the move will surely make for a sweaty summer. But back home, Marine officials expressed support for erring on the side of caution.

"Marines like using that stuff and wearing that stuff for comfort and everything, but as long as it's safe," said Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations at Marine Corps headquarters. "And if there's some safety considerations, then maybe they shouldn't be wearing it."

Huly was unaware of any Corps-wide policy banning the use of synthetic garments, but said the service is studying the issue.

"We know what our policy is on what you will wear: You will wear what the government gives you," he said. "Now, if you want to wear something in addition to that, we're looking at that."

Over the past decade, synthetic fabrics have slowly become all the rage, doing for undergarments what Gore-Tex did for rain gear.

In recent years, civilian sporting goods companies - most notably, the marketing gurus at Under Armour - have turned an eye toward the military, pushing clothes developed for the gridiron out to the battlefield.

Generally created from blends of polyester or nylon, the fabrics increase airflow to the skin and help "wick" moisture away from the body. The days of sweat-soaked cotton are long gone, replaced with these lighter fabrics that dry quickly and often manage odor.

Such performance doesn't come cheap. Designer brands such as Under Armour can cost $25 or more for one T-shirt. But that hasn't stopped troops stationed in hot spots from buying.

In the past year alone, service members deployed to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom have purchased more than 145,000 Under Armour items at combat exchanges, according to sales data from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. That doesn't include any items they brought from home, or any other brands they might have purchased.

And while the move might cut into those sales, officials from Under Armour were supportive of the Corps' decision, saying that protecting American troops should be the top concern.

"U.S. military leaders should determine the appropriate combat uniform for the world's best soldiers and Under Armour will continue to support them."

"At Under Armour we are patriots first and last. We make the world's best performance apparel for the world's best athletes," company officials said in a written statement.

But the bombs that athletes lob on the playing field can't compare to those Marines and sailors face in a place like Iraq.

So slapping a "tactical" label on athletic gear doesn't automatically make it combat-ready, one competitor said.

"It's cool stuff, and the troops want to take it into combat," said Robert Bonin, president of Potomac Field Gear, a performance apparel line touted as both moisture-wicking and flame-resistant. "They just change the color from royal blue to coyote brown, and that's pretty dangerous on the battlefield."

Bonin and his team began working with the Corps last year as part of a program at Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., aimed at mitigating burn injuries.

Known as the Flame-Resistant Organizational Gear, or FROG, program, the group is currently in the research and development phase.

The program will identify items that can be "worn with the cammies to eliminate or reduce the severity of a blast," said SysCom spokesman Capt. Jeff Landis. Besides undergarments, those items could include balaclavas, neck gators, gloves - even new combat uniforms.

"Data suggests that 4.4 percent of all combat casualties have associated burns," Landis said. That's 250 burn incidents out of roughly 5,700 Marines who have been injured or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Further research indicates that burn injuries may be greatly underreported, hence the need for robust research and development," Landis said.

Back to cotton, for now

The Marine Corps took its time in adding moisture-wicking fabrics to the current uniform regulations, finally approving certain products during 2004.

The melting issue was researched prior to the decision, said Mary Boyt, project officer for the Marine Corps Uniform Board.

But the Corps' outer tactical vest is flame-retardant, so Marines wearing the shirts under the vests in a combat or training situation were considered pretty safe from damage to the torso.

"Chances are, you're going to be OK," Boyt said.

But the board acknowledged that some occupations carried higher risks of prolonged exposure to flames.

In April 2005, a safety message went out banning the clothing for most Marines in the tank, amphibious assault vehicle and aviation fields from wearing the fabrics while conducting operations.

Even with the change for Marines operating in western Iraq, the majority of the Marine Corps can continue wearing approved synthetic clothing sold in uniform shops - basically, those in the proper colors and without identifying logos.

"It's a local commander's call," Boyt said.

"Systems Command is going to be working with [Marine commanders in Iraq]. We're trying to push out a fire-retardant synthetic shirt in the near future."

That shirt will likely be long-sleeved, she said, to help protect the arms, and would be issued only to Marines in select occupations or areas of operation. Currently, no contractor has been selected to make the new shirts, and no time frame for their launch has been created, she said.

Until then, Marines in western Iraq will have to go Old Corps, returning to their trusty cotton tees for operations outside base camp perimeters.

Even the looming summer heat isn't likely to get the policy decision reversed.

"The summer months are always a concern, and we take every precaution necessary to increase situational awareness about continued hydration and signs of heat injuries," Andrious said.

"Marines and sailors are allowed to wear synthetic athletic clothing, but they are not allowed to wear it off the operating bases."

Staff writer Christian Lowe contributed to this report.

Tips for burn prevention

It doesn't have to be roadside bomb or rocket attack.

The potential for flaming disaster is all around, from the helicopters transporting troops in the air to the vehicles hauling them on the ground, to the fuel that powers them all.

Researchers studying the fire prevention issue at Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., have a few tips for Marines who want to stay safe:

• Keep your sleeves rolled down when possible. It'll help protect your arms.

• Tuck the blouse into the trousers, keep the trousers bloused and button the top button of the utility blouse with the collar turned up. "By reducing exposed fabric edges, burn area is reduced," said Capt. Jeff Landis, a SysCom spokesman.

• The outer tactical vest is flame- resistant and provides a significant measure of protection for the torso area, even when troops are wearing synthetic shirts underneath. "The potential for burn and melt hazard is low," Landis said.

• "Recent lab testing confirmed that the current combat utility uniform provides a degree of protection from short-duration burn events," Landis said. Even so, it's not like the protection offered by the vest and ballistic plates, and those don't cover synthetic boxers, panties and socks. "When you have an incendiary IED, the flash could spread to other areas not covered by the OTV."