Popular shirts banned in Iraq
By Rick Wills
Thursday, April 20, 2006

The most popular item donated by a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit to U.S. troops cannot be used by Marines outside of Iraq military bases because of safety concerns.

Since its founding two years ago, Operation Troop Appreciation has raised more than $200,000 to send soldiers everything from MP3 players and phone cards to musical instruments and Steelers memorabilia.

But the most-requested item by far - synthetic athletic clothing made by Baltimore-based UnderArmour Inc. - increases the risk of severe burning in the event of a firefight or the detonation of an improvised explosive device, said Capt. Jeff Landis, a Marine Corps spokesman.

When exposed to extreme heat and flames, clothing containing some synthetic materials like polyester will melt and can fuse to the skin.

"Local commanders issued a directive to prevent the wearing of polyester and nylon-based shirts because of the potential for burning," Landis said.

UnderArmour is one of several high-performance athletic brands popular with soldiers who work in Iraq's searing heat because it pulls perspiration away from the body.

Operation Troop Appreciation founder Kristen Holloway said about 80 percent of requests from troops were for UnderArmour products.

The Marines' decision to ban the gear did not come as a complete surprise, she said.

"There have always been some units that have said it's too dangerous to wear," she said. "Other units have said troops cannot wear it in tanks."

Her nonprofit will adapt.

"This does not change what we will do at all," Holloway said. "We have always tailored what we will do to their requests."

UnderArmour Inc. deferred to Marine commanders.

"U.S. military leaders should determine the appropriate combat uniform for the world's best soldiers, and UnderArmour will continue to support them," the company said in a statement.

In Iraq, where temperatures can reach 140 degrees in some place, troops say they love the shirts.

"We would not even give the shirts to the laundry service because we did not want to lose them," said Staff Sgt. Matthew Claycomb of the Pennsylvania National Guard 107th Field Artillery Group, based in Shadyside.

Claycomb, who expects to return to Iraq in September, was stationed at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

"The shirts are great," Claycomb said. "We were hoping there's some way the military could issue these shirts themselves."

Rick Wills can be reached at rwills@tribweb.com or (724) 779-7123.