An ill-equipped soldier tells outdoor gear companies: I Want You

While the Army is now issuing better gear to its troops, there is still much to be desired. Consequently, there are many opportunities for outdoor manufacturers to provide gear directly to the approximately 185,000+ troops deployed to Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
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No doubt about it -- the United States has the best-equipped military in the world. And U.S. soldiers stationed in a combat zone carry the best gear available -- except when it's time to hit the shower. U.S. Army Specialist Chris Chesak, who recently served in Iraq, told SNEWS® that his comrades were envious of his Chaco sandals because their military-issue sandals frequently fell apart. "My friend was walking back from the shower, and when he stepped out of the trailer, he slipped and blew out one shower shoe," said Chesak. "And when he was crossing the muddy field, he blew out the other one." Chesak's Chacos, however, survived the 333-day tour of duty.

After he returned from Iraq in October 2005, Chesak talked with SNEWS® about how soldiers should have access to better gear, and the following are his observations, in his own words.

Your gear could make a difference
By Chris Chesak
While the Army is now issuing better gear to its troops, there is still much to be desired. Consequently, there are many opportunities for outdoor manufacturers to provide gear directly to the approximately 185,000+ troops deployed to Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

While I am no expert on Pentagon procurement, I can only assume that it is a nebulous land of red tape, a place best navigated by experts. I am certainly not one of them. But, having served in Iraq for a year, I know there are opportunities to offer these soldiers gear that will make their lives a little safer and more comfortable.

If your company can make direct sales to soldiers, ship to APO addresses, and expand your advertising to a few new outlets, then you should take advantage of this opportunity. It could boost some sales, promote your brand to a new audience of hard-core users, and -- perhaps most importantly -- get the best gear into these soldiers' hands.

Some needs that I experienced firsthand:

  • Shower shoes -- Anyone that makes a durable trail sandal should be all over this. The guys in my company complained constantly about their cheap rubber shoes -- they broke so often that each person probably bought three to four pairs during the year, and the Post Exchange store ran out of them constantly. My Chacos were often envied, especially during transitional times at smaller bases where we had to walk across hundreds of yards of gravel, sand or dirt to get to a shower trailer.
  • Water bottles -- My squad absolutely loved the Nalgene bottles that my friend Lora Flewelling at REI bought for them. The wide mouth made it easy to add ice and drink mixes, both of which are nearly impossible to do with typical plastic water bottles. Further, I think a collapsible Platypus-type bottle would be extremely handy for carrying around in Humvees or on guard duty, rather than trying to keep the plastic liter bottle from rolling around the turret or falling out of your pants cargo pocket.
  • Ultra-thin socks -- The summer heat topped out at nearly 130 degrees, yet we still had to wear a helmet, body armor, uniform and our high boots. Many of the guys stopped wearing socks, while I switched to mini-crew athletic socks. If we had needed to run after bad guys without socks, a lot of guys' feet would have been hurting. Soldiers need an ultra-thin, almost nylon, durable, extreme heat sock.
  • Ultra-thin uniforms -- I'm probably dreaming on this one, but why are our troops still wearing thick cotton when vented, gusseted, thin nylon hiking clothes are so common in our industry? I don't know if direct uniform sales are possible (I believe the new bit-mapped camouflage pattern is proprietary, for example), but I am sure that troops would welcome them.
  • Body armor hip belts -- I can tell you that while the Interceptor body armor is life-saving (the ceramic plates stop AK-47 rounds at point-blank range), they are not ergonomic. They weigh 35 pounds (that's before adding dozens more pounds for a weapon, ammo, magazine pouches, night vision goggles, and the myriad other things we attached to them), and all that weight sits on the shoulders. This makes the soldier top-heavy and less mobile, and puts the soldier at risk for a back, knee or hip injury. My total load, being a machine gunner, was 80 pounds, and I would have paid very good money for a hip belt that effectively distributed that weight. Someone needs to take a backpack hip belt, add some loops and fasteners so it attaches to the armor --possibly add stays that reach the armor's plates -- and then market it to these guys.

The most direct way to reach these soldiers is to advertise in military publications like "Stars & Stripes" and "The Army Times." These are the only periodicals that we read with any regularity over there (not including the ubiquitous copies of Maxim, Stuff, FHM, etc.) and the only ones that I currently know of that reach that entire audience. A manufacturer of aftermarket add-ons for Humvees (including reinforced bumpers and better gunner's sling seats) often advertised its products, yet no one was advertising better water bottles, socks, etc.

The bottom line is: These soldiers need better gear, the outdoor industry has it, and someone just has to let them know that it's out there.

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