VIRGINIA BEACH -- Late last year, the Navy Clothing Textile Research Facility tested the Navy Working Uniform (NWU) and found that it will burn "robustly" until flames fully consume it.
"I saw it on the front page of Navy Times, and I said, 'Well, that's funny. That's something that I identified 3 years ago, and nothing was done," said retired Navy captain George Avram.
Avram worked at Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM). In 2008, he said Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) wasn't able to meet the need for shirts worn under the uniforms. DLA bought 100-percent cotton T-shirts. NEXCOM decided to fill the gap and procured T-shirts that were a 50-percent cotton/50-percent polyester blend, the same mix as the NWU.
Avram told 13News the Navy instructed NEXCOM to stop selling the blend T-shirts in its stores and to refund money sailors spent to buy the shirts. The reason, Avram said, was that the Navy heard that members of the Army and Marine Corps had issues with similar cotton/polyester blend shirts in areas of combat. Once on fire, the shirts not only burned, but the polyester component melted, making it difficult to remove the shirts and potentially exacerbating injuries.
Avram said NEXCOM followed the order. He and his boss looked at other elements of Navy dress and found that many had as much synthetic material in them or more than the T-shirts. That included the NWU, and that's when they began alerting people above them in the chain of command.
"In practice, in the Fleet, the Navy Working Uniform is sometime substituted with a coverall when you're out at sea, and we identified the coverall, itself, as also being of a high synthetic component, also posing a danger to the sailors," stated Avram.
Despite several attempts to have the Navy look into the issue, Avram claims nothing was done. He believes at least part of the reason is that the Navy invested so much money (approximately $500 billion) in Task Force Uniform, which was the program to develop and distribute the new NWU to the Fleet.
"I would have hoped that the leadership would have said, 'Well, dollars aside, the interest and the concern should be for the safety of the sailors," Avram said. "I'm just glad that the issue has finally gotten to, gotten the attention of people that need to address it."