Getting It Right: U.S. Military – Combat Uniforms

Last month we covered personnel, customs & courtesies, and some drill. If you missed out on that post, you can find it here. This month we’re going to cover combat uniforms. There’s probably nothing more annoying (from a prior service standpoint) than reading a book where the author has obviously not taken the time to research the various uniforms the U.S. military has employed. Over the years, combat uniforms have changed. And the services have a multitude of clothing to suit just about every environment.

OD FatiguesSo, let’s say you’re interested in writing a Vietnam-era war novel. You know, something along the lines of Forrest Gump or Platoon. Most of your character’s time will be spent in the bush. So what did they wear during combat? Combat forces (all branches) were outfitted in what was called “fatigues.” They were simple OD (olive drab) uniforms that were intended to resemble foliage found in most temperate regions of the world. Soldiers would enhance their uniforms with dirt, soot, dust, mud, and sticks of foliage stuck here and there to help break up their outlines. These are the predecessors to what became BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms). The OD duds were used in 3 wars until the BDUs replaced them.

During the Vietnam era, it should be noted that some Special Forces also employed unique “tiger stripe” variations of fatigues. These were very effective in the dense jungle.


kathy rowe bdusBDUs came about in the 1980s and saw service for 30+ years. In the 2000s, things got crazy when it came to utility or combat uniforms. All of a sudden, each branch felt this need to have their “own” special combat uniforms. The Air Force was the last to phase out BDUs. My cherished all-around utility uniform went the way of the dodo officially on 30 Sept 2011 (my retirement date!).

The Air Force replaced with Airmen’s Battle Uniform (ABU; the Army replaced it with Army Combat Uniform (ACU) and then the MultiCam for deployments because the ACUs performed so badly in Afghanistan; the Marines went with the Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform (MCCUU) which has various color patterns; the Navy replaced their dungarees with the Navy Working Uniform (NWU); and the Coast Guard opted for the Operational Dress Uniform (ODU). Each of these have their own pages on Wikipedia.

couch camo
Courtesy of

Now each branch has their distinctive look, and it hasn’t taken long before some of them have realized their uniforms aren’t doing the job. So there’s an ongoing push to find the “perfect” camouflage that will work in all environments. Truthfully, unless they invent invisibility technology, the government will be hard pressed to find a single uniform that will match sea, sand, forest, and snow. Until then, the branches have to contend with whatever their respective higher-ups deem appropriate for wear in the field. Even if it only camouflages in an office environment! This famous photo (at left) made the rounds on all the military bases. At the time it was the Army’s new ACUs and someone demonstrating how well they camouflage into a sofa.

Next month will be Part 3 – Dress Uniforms. I’ll highlight uniforms the branches wear during formal situations.

Author: K. Rowe

K. Rowe is an experienced and prolific multi-genre author. She draws from over twenty years of active Air Force service. Kathy lives in eastern Kentucky with her husband and a zoo of farm animals. Among her many duties she finds time to offer services as a publishing consultant for new authors. Learn more about Kathy from Facebook, and her Amazon author page.

12 thoughts on “Getting It Right: U.S. Military – Combat Uniforms”

  1. Well done Kathy Rowe. Early in the Vietnam War it was not unusual for troops in the field to be wearing state side issued fatigues, OD in color but heavy in the material make up. Seems that for awhile , the jungle fatigue, lighter and much better for the rainy climate were being intercepted by the troops in the rear. That’s a fact.

    1. When the AF switched to the new ABUs all they had were winter weights. Any summer uniforms were going to deployed troops. I was not happy wearing winter weights in the hot NJ summer!

  2. I noticed a bit ago that the Marines had changed their combat uniforms. I did some looking around at one point but I was more interested in equipment at the time. The entire pack set up is now different than it was when I was in the corp.

  3. Can’t wait for dress stuff. First time I saw my old man in dress whites I about flipped out. (He was going to shake hands with Chiang Kai Shek). Class A’s went through some weird changes since the “Brown Shoe Army”, too. I really liked the “pinks and greens” of the late fifties, but the greens we wore in the sixties with the stupid bus driver hat were pretty lackluster. I’m wondering if they even HAVE class A’s anymore? I never see any active duty guys in anything other than cammie jammies any more.

    1. Oh there are plenty of class As out there. But usually reserved for formal occasions. I hated mine and would find any excuse not to wear them!

  4. BTW, the blue camo the Navy wears now is pretty silly. What, people won’t see you floating around in the ocian if you have a blue jigsaw puzzle on your clothes?

    1. If the navy aren’t wearing the cracker jack suits anymore then it’s an improvement. Of all the services they were one that really needed an update. Bell bottoms went put of style well before the 80s.

      1. That was a pretty goofy uniform. The hat was even goofier than other goofy military hats. And the button placket???? Giving rise to the expression, “I’d give her the 13 button salute.”

      2. I think the cracker jacks are still the enlisted version of class As. My ex was Navy and he looked ridiculous in them. And this is another reason I chose the AF.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. Class As are the next post. Then onto small arms and such.

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