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Uniform officials ordered Navy Exchanges to stop selling blue T-shirts in 2009 out of concern that its 50 percent polyester fabric could melt in a fire and harm sailors. This prompted one Navy Exchange Service Command official to review the uniforms sold at uniform stores for their synthetic content.
Here's the specific uniform concerns he raised along with their fabric composition:
Utility coveralls: 65 percent polyester, 35 percent cotton
White T-shirt: 50 percent polyester, 50 percent cotton
Navy working uniform blouse and trousers: 50 percent nylon, 50 percent cotton
NWU mock turtleneck sweater: 66 percent nylon, 19 percent polyester, 15 percent spandex
Wash khaki shirts and trousers: 65 percent polyester, 35 percent cotton (Note: These are no longer worn in the fleet.)
All of these fabrics will burn in a flame test and the synthetic fibers may melt, said Dr. Peter Hauser, a textile chemist at North Carolina State University who reviewed the fabric specifications for Navy Times. The mock turtleneck is most likely to melt and drip, he said in an email.
Source: Staff research
His concerns began with a white tee.
It was 2009, and uniform officials had told the Navy Exchange that they needed to stop selling a blue T-shirt, designed to be worn under the blue-and-gray Navy working uniform, out of concern that its synthetic fibers could melt onto the wearer's skin in a fire.
After selling half a million of these blue T-shirts, Navy Exchanges recalled them and refunded sailors. But in the process, the Navy Exchange Service Command official discovered an unsettling fact: a white T-shirt with identical fabric was also on sale.
"Believe it or not, Navy regs said you could wear a white T-shirt that was 50 percent synthetic and 50 percent cotton underneath your uniforms on the ship," said retired Capt. George Avram, a former NEXCOM official involved in the 2010 T-shirt recall. "But if it was blue, you can't wear it — it's a safety hazard!"
Avram, a former No. 2 at NEXCOM, told Navy Times he brought this seeming contradiction to uniform officials and recommended they recall the white T-shirt, then worn with dungarees and wash khakis. Meanwhile, a stock review determined six other uniform items sold at NEXs — including the blue-and-gray NWU — also had synthetic blends that posed risks similar to the blue T-shirt.
But he claims those concerns, including a subsequent formal complaint, were ignored and dismissed. He said he believes his outspokenness over the issue led to his ouster.
News of this whistle-blower complaint comes while the Navy reassesses the suitability of its fleet uniforms to fire after an Oct. 15 official test found the Type I NWU — the "aquaflage" — will melt in a fire, potentially putting sailors at risk. Two working groups are reviewing fleet uniforms in what the fleet commanders have called "a thorough and deliberative process."
Many sailors were outraged by the news that their everyday fleet uniform would "burn robustly" and "melt" when exposed to a flame, as the Navy test found, since fire is one of the gravest threats that ship crews face. Officials said they're scrutinizing the test results, but note that the flame-resistant requirement for shipboard uniforms was lifted 17 years ago.
Avram said he felt "vindicated" that the Navy is now seriously examining some of the issues he had raised, but said it has a long list of questions to answer, starting with why things took so long.
"Well, I'm glad that it finally happened, but why didn't it happen three years ago?" Avram said, referring to the fleet uniform review. "We just put sailors at risk for three years unnecessarily."
Avram's case shows that the chief of naval personnel's uniform officials were alerted to NWU safety concerns — the same issues that prompted the current review — and raise questions about whether these concerns were taken seriously at CNP at the time.
Officials at CNP did not address Navy Times' questions about their response to Avram's concerns or say whether this had prompted a review, noting that much of their current leadership arrived after this period.
"The Navy welcomes input from Sailors and the Fleet for recommendations to consider uniform changes or updates," CNP said in a statement.
After his noncommittal reply from CNP, Avram filed a complaint with the Pentagon's Inspector General on Jan. 20, 2010.
"Why am I contacting the IG?" he wrote in his complaint, which was provided to Navy Times. "The Navy has identified a safety hazard to sailors that is inherent to the fabrics of several uniform items. Yet the Navy has chosen to address only a single case (the blue 50/50 T-shirt) and ignore the rest.
"If the safety concerns regarding the 50/50 T-shirt are bona fide," Avram continued, "then our sailors remain at significant bodily risk."
Avram said the Defense Department IG told him they had found no wrongdoing and closed his case in mid-2010.
A DoD IG spokeswoman declined to say whether these issues were investigated, citing privacy concerns because the complaint was filed as confidential.
The cost of a recall
During deliberations with CNP over the blue-shirt recall on Dec. 4, 2009, the head of NEXCOM, Rear Adm. Steve Romano, informed uniform officials that his uniform stores also sold seven other uniforms with "high synthetic fabric composition," where synthetic fabric made up 50 percent or more of the garment's fabric, according to an email Romano sent to CNP. The email was included in Avram's IG filing.
The response was quick and concise.
"Thanks Steve and I think your look at our total fabric composition status was prudent," replied Rear Adm. Dan Holloway, the two-star who then oversaw uniform matters at CNP, in an email 11 minutes later. "Appreciate your active involvement and feedback."
But was Avram's feedback really appreciated? The retired captain says absolutely not. He feels this was the first of many offhand dismissals his warnings received.
Holloway, who retired as a vice admiral at the end of 2011, did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
NEXCOM had estimated the blue-shirt recall would cost roughly $2 million in revenues. But in that case, CNP told the Navy Exchange that this came down to a safety issue, Avram recalled, and that "you've got to swallow this bill." This bothered Avram.
If high synthetic content was a hazard to sailors, Avram wondered why hadn't CNP also pulled the mock turtleneck, a 100 percent synthetic garment worn underneath NWUs?
"So if a shirt that's 50 percent [synthetic] is an issue, well then, you got to tell me that a mock turtleneck, at 100 percent, is an issue," Avram said.
"There was no logic to any of this, and I was just trying to get a good answer," added Avram, a long-serving mustang who enlisted in 1972 and served for three years, rising to aviation boatswain's mate second class. During that time, he served aboard the aircraft carrier Oriskany, which only years before had suffered one of the Navy's most devastating fires since World War II, a blaze that killed 44 crewmen. Avram was commissioned in 1981 and entered the Supply Corps.
In 2009, with his mandatory retirement a year away, he felt he had little to lose by challenging Big Navy logic on uniforms.
The dangers of the blended T-shirts were apparent at the time. Flame melts synthetic fibers. These molten drops can burn the skin or fuse to a wound, complicating treatment.
As NEXCOM's director of the Uniform Program Management office, Avram kept bringing the issue up: Why only recall the blue T-shirts? CNP officials told him that the white tees were also worn with dress uniforms, and that wash khakis would be phased out within a year.
Avram pressed harder. Uniform officials admitted there was an "incongruence" in their efforts, according to a transcript from one teleconference provided by Avram, but they complained to Avram's boss that his questioning and tone were "unprofessional."
'What's the tactical value?'
Avram was not alone. During the NWU's development, a senior officer who oversaw uniform production at NEXCOM raised his own concerns with uniform officials, including the then-chief of naval personnel, Vice Adm. John Harvey.
"I always argued, 'What's the tactical value to this program?' because it was a $420 million program," said the retired commander, who requested anonymity as his government job discourages him from speaking to the press. "I could never find that."
In an email, Harvey, who retired as a four-star in 2012, said he did not recall this discussion. "I was getting a great many comments from a great many sources," he explained.
The former NEXCOM official called Avram "a straight shooter," and said they had raised legitimate questions about the functionality and cost-effectiveness of NWUs.
His concerns met the same response as Avram: "I fought to the point that they told me I just needed to shut up," he recalled.
The case also raises questions about whether the brass was upfront with sailors about the reason for the T-shirt recall. Avram asserts that a crucial paragraph was stripped from the naval message, NAVADMIN 015/10, which does not mention the safety considerations that led to the recall.
According to Avram's IG filing, this deleted paragraph had made the risks clear: "The requirement for 100 percent cotton fabric was established to prevent physical complications caused by polyester fabric against the skin when exposed to high heat or open flames." Avram said he believes this was stricken because it raised concerns about other approved fleet uniforms with high synthetic fiber content.
All of these complaints took their toll. Avram alleges his relationship with his bossRomano deteriorated.
Romano, who retired later in 2010 as a one-star, did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
Romano also was upset Avram spoke to Navy Times about the recall, and told him that he had not been authorized to comment on the safety concerns, according to Avram.
"We are not safety experts," Romano wrote to Avram in a Jan. 22, 2010, email, which Avram provided to Navy Times.
Romano and colleaguesstarted to see him as a loose cannon, Avram said.
Avram had hurt his back in a car accident and was set to retire in March 2011. Once his IG complaints were dismissed, Romano decided to ease him out sooner. Romano relieved Avram of his post and said he didn't need to come to work any more, freeing Avram to focus on physical therapy. Avram would only have to muster by phone three times a week.
Despite this leniency, Avram felt he had been fired.
"It was humiliating," he recalled. "I'm not John Paul Jones, but I've given 35 years to the Navy, and I'm pretty happy with the effort I put forth … and I thought it was a damn shame that my last seven months were spent sitting at home watching Oprah."