This is everything you ever wanted to know about US desert uniforms

Thanks to the generosity of military members who literally gave up the uniforms they wore on their backs, Alexander Barnes and Kevin Born have successfully authored a new book that is educating readers on the nuances of desert uniforms.

After more than two years, their 344-page hardcover reference book “Desert Uniforms, Patches and Insignia of the U.S. Armed Forces” was published in late 2016. It features more than 1,000 mostly color photos with detailed descriptions of a variety of uniforms, different unit patches and insignia and more. They had lots of willing help tracking these down – locally and around the globe.

To handle the massive project, they set up a small studio in Born’s house and spend nights and weekends photographing and scanning several hundred donated and loaned uniforms, patches and insignia worn by U.S. Armed Forces.

Barnes, a former Marine and National Guardsman, and Kevin Born, chief of the Collective Training Development Division in theCASCOM G-3/5/7, and retired Army major, often just needed to walk around CASCOM for help.

“Working in a building with so many military veterans,” said Born “one is bound to run into some who had served during the desert period. Retired Col. Charles (Charlie) Brown, director of the Battle Lab, gave me his 6-colored uniform from Desert Storm and 3-colored Desert Combat Uniform from Afghanistan. And on the day he retired, he loaned me his Army Combat Uniform off his back, which is in the book illustrating the transition to the ACU uniform.”

This Coast Guard Desert Combat Uniform represents a Chief Petty Officer assigned to the 307th Port Security in Clearwater, Fla. The uniform is among the hardest to find since only a few few thousand Coast Guardsmen deployed. This unit saw deployments to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo: U.S. Military)

Born said, “In another example, one day I walked out of my office in the CASCOM G-3 area and 10 feet away in Jason Aleo’s cubicle was hanging a rare desert Close Combat Uniform from his service as a field artillery captain with a Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I asked to borrow it as well as photos of him wearing it in Northern Iraq. It’s included on two pages in the book.

Barnes, who retired as a CASCOM logistics management supervisor in 2015, has similar accounts of those assisting with the book.

“I sent an email to Lt. Gen. (Mitchell) Stevenson (in England), a former CASCOM commander, and asked if he could share a photo of his service. He replied a day later, ‘What do you need, and how soon?’” said Barnes. “He was in a civilian job, but he stepped forward and sent us a great picture of him in the desert.”

Born continued, “I walked by Chaplain (Maj.) Stanton Trotter’s office one day, and saw a set of framed photos from his service with the 10th Mountain Division very early in Afghanistan in 2001. He kindly loaned several for us to scan. These appear in the book with Trotter praying next to a Soldier.”

Barnes and Born together have more than 50 years of military service and share a long history and avid passion for military collecting. Barnes has a master’s in anthropology, grew up in a military family and has co-authored three other books on military history as well as writing many articles on the subject.

Born has a bachelor’s in history and education and has authored numerous articles on military insignia collecting, an area he has focused on for more than 40 years. While they worked at CASCOM for a number of years, they did not know each other until the August 2011 earthquake in Central Virginia.

‘‘Al and I are both members of the U.S. Militaria Forum and he commented about the earthquake on the forum that night,” said Born. “I saw his post and realized there was another military collector one floor above me. I reached out to him through the forum.”

Barnes said, “the earthquake was the catalyst.”

They soon discovered like-minded military collectors on Fort Lee who included Richard Killblane, the Transportation School historian, and then Lt. Col. (now Col.) Robert Nay, the former deputy installation chaplain.

“We met periodically at lunch to talk about our collecting interests,” Born said. “The seeds for the book came out of these discussions.”

They also collaborated on several articles in Military Trader Magazine that allowed them to get used to each other’s writing styles and served as practice for writing the book.

However, there were no plans yet for a book.

Barnes continued, “We started having lunches with others who had the same interest. After several, we decided to have a military swap meet at Fort Lee.”

Three annual gatherings took place and there was a huge interest, Barnes said.

“After one of these, we said, ‘We need to do something about all these desert uniforms. If we don’t, it will be hard to do it in 20 years.’”

A soldier enjoys breakfast in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in 1990 wearing the so-called “chocolate chip” desert camo uniform. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Cisneros via Flickr)

The two were unsure of any interest in a book about desert uniforms. “It was such a short period of military history,” noted Barnes. Others at Lee changed their minds.

“It was one of these serendipity things,” said Barnes as they began asking veterans about their desert tours. “So, you were there too. I’ll be darned. Would you have any pictures? And they would say ‘sure.’”

Barnes added, “most were surprised anyone cared. ‘You’re kidding. You really want pictures of me in Iraq. Sure – anything I have, you can have.’”

The original project was smaller in scale. “We thought it would be kind of an Army patch book – showing the variations of these with a couple pictures of uniforms,” said Barnes. “But it kept growing as we felt it important to add all services.”

Schiffer Publishing – the publisher of three other books by Barnes – quickly gave the go-ahead. Both were surprised to get a positive response. They were given nearly a year to pull it together – write the chapters and captions, gather the content, take photos and more.

After 10 months of gathering content and expanding the book, they submitted their package in August 2015. In December, they began receiving sections of the book from Schiffer. After receiving proofs, both saw areas where more details were needed, and they started a Facebook page to help in this process.

“We got more interest from around the world,” said Barnes.

In preparation for the book, they accumulated more than 1,000 government and theater-made desert patches and over 300 uniforms. A large number are in it. These came from numerous veterans and collectors.

Others at Fort Lee (some retired or at other bases now) who were helpful include retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jeffie Moore, formerly with the CASCOM Proponency office; Maj Mike Bethea, an Enterprise Systems Directorate officer in CASCOM; Dr. Milt Smith, a dentist at Bull clinic; and Capt. (now Maj.) Vance Zemke, a former instructor at ALU.

Born added, “I found out two weeks before Maj. Zemke was to PCS to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., that he had a huge collection of theater-made patches acquired in his deployments. He kindly loaned them to me with the provision I get them back in a few days’ time for him to pack them up for the movers. I spent day-and-night scanning them. They can be found throughout the book.”

The book foreword is by retired Maj. Gen. Ken Bowra, a former Special Forces officer, a friend of Barnes and Born.

“He not only wrote the foreword, but he allowed us to take pictures of his personal uniforms and shared many photographs as well,” said Barnes. “He served in the entire desert uniform period, wore these uniforms and patches in Desert Storm/Somalia/Operation Enduring Freedom and many other places. Most importantly, he always had a great respect for all the men and women who served during this era.”

Bowra also is a military history writer and author of two Osprey Vietnam-era books.

There were some hard-to-get uniforms and patches, notably CASCOM patches.

“Most collectors do not have these,” noted Born. “These units are not normally in the desert environment, and fewer people were deployed from the schools. I only had a loose copy of the patch. But Al beat the bushes with all of his contacts to find a photograph of one being worn in theater, which are both in the book.”

They completed their final review in August 2016 and were pleased to receive finished copies in late December.

Born said, “writing the book was about two things for us – recognizing the service and sacrifice of the men and women of the armed forces who wore the desert uniform as well as advancing this area of military collecting. Whenever a reference like this is published, there is an increased interest among collectors.”

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