Friday, June 25, 2010

Army ditches Velcro for buttons

By Tom Vanden Brook

WASHINGTON � The Army is ripping space-age Velcro from its uniforms and replacing it with the humble button, which turns out to be tailor-made for the rigors of Afghanistan.

Hook-and-pile tape � the generic term for Velcro � strains to keep jam-packed cargo pants pockets closed. And when the Taliban attacks, the last thing soldiers need to worry about is spilling their gear.

Soldiers told superiors that Velcro didn't suit their needs, and the Army began testing alternatives last year, says Debi Dawson, an Army spokeswoman. In August, the Army will begin issuing new pants to soldiers heading to Afghanistan.

"When concerns surfaced in surveys that the hook-and-pile tape was not holding under the weight of full pocket loads, the Army evaluated several solutions," Dawson says. Velcro has been part of the latest Army combat uniform since it was introduced in 2004.

Dirt and rocks also clog the pile portion of the fastener. That requires soldiers to clean it regularly. An Army website offers this helpful hint: a soldier's small weapons cleaning brush has been "working very well" in removing dirt and sand.

"This is the latest proof that dust and debris are the biggest enemy for the U.S. military," says Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute and a defense consultant.

Sgt. Kenny Hatten cut to the heart of the matter in this posting on an Army website:

"Get rid of the pocket flap Velcro and give us back our buttons," Hatten wrote. "Buttons are silent, easy to replace in the field, work just fine in the mud, do not clog up with dirt and do not fray and disintegrate with repeated laundering."

Somebody, apparently, was listening.

Snaps and buttons were identified as possible fixes for failing Velcro. Soldiers testing prototype uniforms favored buttons. In the end, the Army decided to substitute three buttons for Velcro on the cargo pockets of its pants.

It's cheaper, too. The Army will save 96 cents per uniform, Dawson says.

The new uniforms will still have plenty of Velcro, the sticky fabric popularized in spaceflights. (Astronauts use it to keep pens and other items from floating in the weightless environment.) Velcro will remain on the cuffs of sleeves and be used for nameplates and patches.

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