Soldiers are the only U.S. service members who aren't allowed to roll up their sleeves. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
For Spc. Milt Perkins, the summer heat at Fort Polk is like a Louisiana steam bath.
“I sweat every day when I walk to work,” said Perkins, a 26-year-old operating room specialist for a combat support hospital. “You get sticky.”
All he wants is to roll up the sleeves of his ACU and catch a hint of glorious breeze.
But under Army rules, he cannot. No soldier may.
And while soldiers might suffer this summer under the rule, most may not even know why it’s there.
Troops in the other services are allowed to roll their sleeves, but soldiers have been denied the pleasure of doing so for roughly a decade, since the Army Combat Uniform replaced the Battle Dress Uniform.
The Army’s official explanation, in response to questions from Army Times, is that the ACU top was made to protect soldiers’ forearms from the sun, insects, and other elements and it’s not designed to be cuffed.
While sleeve-rolling is not on the table right now, leadership is “always looking to make our clothing and equipment better,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Doug Maddi, senior enlisted adviser to PEO Soldier, the office which procures and provides soldier equipment.
“Soldiers can request changes to the Department of the Army Pamphlet 670-1 Guide to the Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia, by submitting a Department of the Army (DA) Form 2028 to the Army G1 though their chain of command,” Maddi said in an emailed statement.
Troops are ready to roll
When Army Times asked soldiers how they would change the ACU, Perkins was one of dozens who commented on social media or wrote in saying they want the Army to scrap the ban on sleeve-rolling.
“When it’s hot in Louisiana, we should be able to roll up our sleeves,” Perkins reasoned.
Long-sleeves are not only hotter, but also dirtier, said Pfc. Ian Strutt-Kist, a 19-year-old who works at the Tustin, California, Army Reserve. It was a problem in California’s 80- and 90-degree summers, but also when he was digging foxholes in Basic Combat Training.
“When working with dirt, if dirt gets on your forearms under your jacket and you’re sweaty, it basically becomes mud up your sleeve and it is very uncomfortable,” Strutt-Kist said.
Most soldiers told Army Times the heat was the primary reason they want the OK to roll sleeves, adopting the “suns out, guns out” mentality of their Marine brethren.
Other soldiers chimed in to say rolled sleeves could actually improve a soldier’s appearance.
Spc. Ian Humphrey, a 26-year-old construction surveyor at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and the son of a Marine scout sniper, recalls the crisp cuffed sleeves of the BDU era.
“In BDUs they looked more like soldiers, someone to look up to,” Humphrey said. “You always saw everyone with their sleeves rolled up and tattoos out, no problem.”
A loophole in the regs allows Spc. Tyler Morin and his fellow auto mechanics to roll the sleeves of their coveralls in the heat of their Fort Story, Virginia, motor pool. He would like to see the privilege expanded to ACUs, particularly in the summer.
“I’m for it, especially for people stationed where it’s warmer, like Texas, or even when you’re up north,” he said. “When you’re working, it makes such a difference to roll your sleeves up.”
Morin said it would be easy enough to apply sunblock to bare arms — and if it takes a few extra minutes to get a proper cuff, so what.
Not all soldiers agree it’s time to lift the ban.
Army National Guard Staff Sgt. James Lowe, a 35-year-old indirect fire infantryman at the Camp Swift, Texas, training center, said he wasn’t a fan when he rolled his sleeves on active duty in the late 1990s. He still opposes it.
When it was allowed, he knew a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division whose arms were too large to fit through his rolled up sleeves. He had to get his tops altered by cutting off the sleeve material and having the cuffs sewn on for the look.
“I know this would not be a common problem, but it caused him to have to spend money to alter uniforms,” Lowe said.
The rolled sleeves sealed off air flow to Lowe’s arms and required him to apply sunscreen to protect them. To boot, the 10 minutes it took to properly roll the sleeves, he said, was “more trouble than it’s worth.”
Big Army's rationale
Many soldiers interviewed for this story were unclear on why the Army won’t let them roll sleeves. Some speculated it had something to do with tattoos, but that’s not the case, officials say.
The Army’s ban on sleeve rolling began with one sentence tucked in one all-Army message from April 5, 2005, when then-Army chief of staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker replaced the BDU with the digital ACU.
ALARACT 078/2005, which dictates instructions for wearing the ACU stated: “sleeves will be worn down at all times, and not rolled or cuffed.”
At that time, it was said the rule would protect soldiers against sunburns and skin cancer.Not to mention the ever-present danger of flash-overs from war zone roadside bombs.
Research shows exposed skin does mean an increased risk of skin cancer, said Shelby Moneer a leader with the Melanoma Research Foundation. Among its skin cancer prevention advice, the foundation encourages the use of long sleeves.
Across DoD, there were 2,198 skin cancer patients in 2013, though it ranked in the bottom third in terms of the frequency of the military’s medical issues.
The risks apparently have not been enough to dissuade the other services from okaying sleeve rolls, however, and some soldiers told Army Times they would wear sun block if they could roll with their “guns out.”
Officials also argue that wearing long sleeves reduces insect bites thereby reducing the spread of disease. Over 10 years of war, there have been 916 cases of malaria, 2,549 cases of leishmaniasis, 930 cases of dengue and 349 cases of arthropod-borne hemorrhagic fevers reported in U.S. military service members and military health system beneficiaries.
Malaria cases appear to be tapering off, but DoD infection surveillance officials still recommend soldiers in certain areas continue “proper wear” of their insecticide-treated uniforms, which means sleeves down and tucked-in trousers.
Of the 30 cases of malaria in 2013, more than a third came from Afghanistan. Eighteen of the cases were in the Army.
Health risks aside, there is another big reason why sleeve-rolling is outlawed.
“The Army never designed [the ACU] to have rolled sleeves,” Maddi said in his prepared statement to Army Times.
Take that literally. The “engineering of the uniform” — in essence, its Velcro pockets on either forearm and a pen pocket above the left cuff — “makes it difficult to roll the sleeves,” Maddi said.
Some soldiers disagree, however, and submitted photos to Army Times proving that sleeve-rolling could be done and with little effort. Army Times tested sleeve-rolling on the ACU and came to the same conclusion — it is possible, despite the ACU design.
And even if the design is not perfect for sleeve rolling, it may not be insurmountable.
The British Army in 2013 faced a similar problem. It was summer and soldiers wanted to roll up sleeves, but the combat uniform was not designed for it. Leadership caved anyway and granted commanding officers the authority to OK sleeve rolls, despite the awkward sleeve design.
Sleeve-rolling in history
Although soldiers are pictured in rolled sleeves from World War II through the Vietnam War, it appears as though Army regulations did not address the issue widely until 1969.
Army historian Luther Hanson, of the Army Quartermaster Museum on Fort Lee, Virginia, researched the issue after receiving an Army Times request.
He found in 1966 that local regulations in Vietnam authorized commanders to allow “cuffed sleeves.”
In 1969, appearance regulations dictated that sleeves not be rolled or shortened. Exceptions were permitted, “only to prevent heat injury.”
“What that means to me is that the local commander could designate, ‘It’s really hot, roll your sleeves up,’ ” Hanson said.
Hanson also found Army appearance regulations published in 1981, 1987 and early 2005 that permitted rolled sleeves, so long as the cuffs sat no more than three inches above the elbow. In contrast with the Marine Corps, which exposed the underside of the sleeves, the sleeves of the BDU were to be rolled with camouflage facing out.
Marine Corps flip-flops
Like the Army, the Marine Corps also recently banned sleeve-rolling. But the decision, approved in 2011 by Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, was very unpopular and was actually reversed this February.
The Marine Corps Uniform Board supported the 2011 ban, saying it would help Marines to “train as you fight,” since they wore their sleeves long while downrange.
Marines were immediately incensed at the rule change, many linking crisp sleeve rolls to part of the Corps’ culture.
Amos expected the angst to subside, but was surprised as years passed and the complaints continued.
“It was a visceral thing for Marines,” Amos said. “And there was only one person who could change it. And it was me.”
Older Marines have since had to educate younger Marines about the proper sleeve-rolling technique — something the Army would also have to consider if the sleeve-rolling ban was ever reversed.
Reserve Army Sgt. Andrea Munson, a 29-year-old medic in Richmond, Virginia, remembers wearing her sleeves rolled when she was a Marine officer candidate, and she’s jealous of her sailor husband who gets to wear his rolled.
“The Navy uniform, I personally think, looks better,” she said. “He looks better on a regular basis than I do.”
According to Munson, the real problem is the ACU’s large rectangular shoulder pockets. If the uniform was overhauled to remove them and make way for rolled sleeves, it would give the uniform more polished, weather-appropriate look, like the other services, she said.
“It’s a balance between form and function,” she said.