By 8:00 Monday night, after only three days, that was the number of supporting signatures on a change.org petition targeting the Security Force Assistance Brigade’s (SFAB) adoption of a green(ish) beret. The White House promises to officially respond to petitions signed by 100,000 people. The number of signatures required to get the Army chief of staff’s attention, it appears, is slightly lower. By Monday night, Gen. Mark Milley had gone on the record in an effort to contain the widespread frustration with the beret and other insignia that appeared to borrow heavily from the special operations community.
From a public relations perspective, the past week has been a challenge for the 1st SFAB, due mainly to the leaked details of new uniform features that set off a social media firestorm. The tab, patch, and beret color are merely symptoms of a more fundamental issue—somewhere in the SFAB’s organization is a messaging shortcoming that needs to be addressed. Even more potentially troubling—given the 1st SFAB is still filling its billets but is already scheduled to deploy sometime next year—this entire issue could have been avoided with a little bit of patience. Ironically, patience is something the 1st SFAB’s commander has said is key to success in its advising mission.
To be sure, as Gen. Milley himself noted, anger over the beret and unit patch shouldn’t be directed at the SFAB itself. But regardless, for an organization rightly focused on individual and collective training ahead of a looming deployment, the negative attention is a distraction. Some of the criticism is unwarranted and based on misunderstandings, but all of it indicates a sub-par communications strategy. This is not the first time a uniform change generated such a reaction, which means it could likely have been predicted and avoided. Army-wide responses to Gen. Eric Shinseki’s decision in 2001 to take the Ranger Regiment’s black beret and make it the primary headgear of the entire Army should have been enough to give Army decision makers pause. Potential points of friction could have easily been spotted, and the backlash may have been completely avoided. If such efforts occurred, they were not effective.
In particular, the beret continues to generate significant resentment (as much as social media commentary can be considered as such), and it started with the choice of a beret color perilously close to the Special Forces’s iconic green beret. The fact that the beret is based on British headgear—“more of an olive brown,” Gen. Milley described it—and not the iconic US Special Forces beret was not made public before thousands of people looked at the leaked photo and saw a green beret. Again, messaging.
The Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) offers a useful point of comparison. Founded in 2004, the AWG advises commanders and helps develop solutions to challenges they confront in their operating environments. Like the SFAB, it was created based on operational conditions encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also like the SFAB, the AWG employs an assessment and selection process before candidates progress through further training (although the processes do differ between the two). Both the SFAB and the AWG are unique organizations with unique missions. Though the AWG does have a distinctive unit patch, so do hundreds of Army units. AWG-assigned soldiers do not wear distinctive headgear—something reserved for a much more select set of Army organizations that have particular historical significance (cavalry Stetsons) or showcase an elite status (Rangers, Special Forces, and Airborne units). The SFAB can claim neither, at least not yet.
The beret isn’t the only new SFAB trademark. Their newly adopted unit patch has created similar agitation, albeit on a smaller scale than the beret. The patch is a combination of either a “Combat Advisor” or “Advise-Assist” tab and an arrowhead-shaped patch with an upright sword inside. The SFAB patch pays homage to a combination of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) insignia and the MACV Recondo School arrowhead patch. Gen. Milley confirmed the MACV inspiration for the new SFAB patch, which makes sense given how comparable the mission sets are between the two commands.
Parallels to the Recondo arrowhead patch are harder to make. Though there were versions of the Recondo School stateside, most well-known was the school developed and implemented during combat in Vietnam. The focus was on long-range reconnaissance operations deep inside enemy territory, culminating with an actual patrol against enemy forces. If the SFAB advisors are performing their established tasks, their operations should not resemble the heavily armed, small-team patrols typical of Recondo units. And while many units do have arrowhead-shaped patches, the stylized shape of the Recondo patch (and now the SFAB patch) is very distinct.
The last feature of the patch blasted in the blogosphere is the “Advise-Assist” or “Combat Advisor” tab. Little credit should be given to claims this tab is a rip-off of the Special Forces “long tab.” There is solid precedent for the wear of “unearned” tabs in the Army already, another fact Gen. Milley pointed out. Among others, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, and 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Divisions all have tabs that require no qualification or assessment for assigned personnel. Each of those tabs is only authorized for wear while assigned to the unit, and the same goes for the Combat Advisor tab. Aside from being curved and located above the shoulder sleeve insignia, the two tabs share very little visually. That has not stopped criticism. What is important is that the advisor Additional Skill Identifier will have to be earned, by completing the advisor academy and a subsequent deployment.
While Shinseki’s infamous black beret decision shows, perhaps, what not to do, the approach adopted by the Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) demonstrates the opposite. The MCoE made a public call for recommendations for their unit insignia, shoulder patch, and motto. The patch underwent several minor changes from 2008 to 2009, and was officially distributed in 2009. There was no backlash, no change.org petitions. The final product made sense. Proactive engagement allowed the unit to avoid unintentional missteps. Since the SFAB patch has yet to be officially adopted, there may be time to adopt the same method. Doing so would be reactive, but might earn the SFAB more supporters from the current population of detractors.
All this begs the question as to why the SFAB needs special uniform features at all. According to Army Regulation 670-1 (Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia), uniforms are a symbol of professionalism that indicate pride, esprit de corps, and morale. From this perspective, distinctive features make sense—unit members are set apart, unique, and easily identified. Having something new and distinctive is not the issue. Borrowing so many features from historically significant organizations—without having first matched the assessment, training, and operational rigor—is the problem. Someone should have expected such a swift backlash. These things are deeply personal.
Spending a little time on the 1st SFAB’s Facebook page makes one thing certain: the unit is training and preparing its people. With an accelerated deployment timeline that puts them into a combat environment months ahead of the original schedule, that is exactly where the focus should be. The uniform issues, while intended to instill pride and garner positive attention from potential recruits, have proven ill-timed and were largely avoidable. The key for the SFAB is proving whether the investment in talent, time, and training dollars was worthwhile. But with the pressure to do so, and do so on a rushed deployment timeline, the Army needs to be clearing distractions from the SFAB’s way, not creating them.
Why does every unit in the Army need a beret. It's a stupid piece of head gear. It doesn't keep the sun out of your eyes, protect against weather, or, sit correctly on your head. It's one of the dumbest ideas out there. Oooo, I know. Let's give EVERYBODY a beret to increase moral. Bull.
That should be, "morale".
Hmm… better hope the petition doesn't hit 100k. One tweet from the CIC would end this nonsense: "Pick a color – any color but NOT green or any shade that resembles green."
Hope I am wrong but the beret image on this article looks pretty darn close to and could easily be confused with green. The best way to confirm the color palette selection? Ask any 10 year old – he or she will be happy to show the management team a box of Crayolas.
Why not? They stole my black beret I worked my ass off for in the 80s!
Very good analysis here. Thank you, Sir for this article.
De Oppresso Liber
Cavalry is with a capital "C"!
Nobody cares. No one likes the cav anyways
Now the Cavalry does do many things correctly. They hold on to real tradition and history that creates a common bond and sense of belonging. They keep the only US distinctive and useful piece of headgear, unlike the French/British useless beret and the fake history behind it. The Marine Corps is a prime example of the power of hanging on to and passing on history and tradition.
I find this kind of depressing. A unit whose mission specifically requires excellent, even exquisite, understanding of local cultures makes a mistake like this. Perhaps the decision was made elsewhere and does not reflect on the unit at all. Nevertheless, it is ironic and sadly indicative of a longstanding weakness within the US Armed Forces when it comes to understanding other cultures. If we are not even attuned to Our Own culture, how on earth are we going to navigate truly different ones?
The berets, unit name, unit patch (with long tab) were very deliberately done to make them look like Special Forces. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think it is very amusing, but it is not amusing for the soldiers preparing to be in the unit and it's not amusing to most actual Special Forces soldiers, active and retired. Why put them in a beret at all???? Good luck, "Security Force" advisers. You will need it. It's a very tough job.
Part of the problem is evident in your article and showcases a fundamental problem with Army culture. The author describes the “Cadet borrowing” (aka theft) of the most elite regiment in the Army’s distinctive headgear and shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) as a “communication problem” or a “messaging problem”.
It actually indicates a poor grasp of the concept of Honor.
Posers – those losers who claim to be “Special Ops” (the phrase itself is an instant giveaway) in the bar, or post pictures of themselves on social media in uniform wearing SOF community badges and headgear, are universally despised. “Stolen Valor” is the term.
Adopting for yourself a “olive green”, “green-brown”, then “no, it’s completely brown, not green at all” beret, is more serious than “bad messaging”. The same for a Blue arrowhead shoulder patch with a vertical sword on it – “it’s not like the SF patch, which looks very similar but also has three lightning bolts – it’s like the MACV patch, except the MACV patch was Red, and a different shape.” Yes, there is more than a whiff of Stolen Valor to all of this, which is shocking coming from senior Army Officers. Even more pathetic when they say, “we can’t change it, the Institute of Heraldry designed it.” The CSA can’t overuse the Institute of Heraldry?? That’s just nonsense.
The whole thing is bizarre coming after the Shinseki/black beret debacle.
Gen. Mark Milley Will not go down in history for the exploits of heroism he so rightfully earned as a Special Forces officer, more likely he will go down as the Special Forces officer who threw Special Forces under the bus. That will be his legacy.
What acts of heroism has he displayed in his career?
When the black beret was issued (2001), we were doing JTF6 again for the 3rd time this FY because we had no money to train. There was $$ for berets but none for us to train (FAD3 unit). Stetsons weren't issued, you had to buy them. 7 yrs in the Cav never had one, explained to CO, if the army wanted me to have a stetson it would issue it to me. This is being issued. You don't get morale boosts from uniform changes no matter what you think. The number of uniform changes in the last 20 years says to me 1. to many SGM's with nothing to do 2. To many O-7+ with nothing to do 3. With so much $$ for uniforms why can't basic requirements be fulfilled like usable mags? Really
“AWG-assigned soldiers do not wear distinctive headgear—something reserved for a much more select set of Army organizations that have particular historical significance (cavalry Stetsons) or showcase an elite status (Rangers, Special Forces, and Airborne units).” I take issue with this statement because it downplays the “elite” status of the AWG. As a Special Mission Unit it is clearly more elite than the SFABs and actually is made up of former Green Berets……