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Army may get berets from China

No retreat. The Army says it will not back off from its decision to make black berets standard headgear for soldiers, though it might postpone the June target date.

The timing concerns a fuss over buying berets from China.

When he announced last October that all soldiers except paratroopers and Special Forces soldiers would wear black berets, the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, said the change would take effect on the Army's birthday, June 14.

That set a deadline, however, for acquiring 2.6-million berets that the Defense Logistics Agency said it could meet only by contracting with foreign manufacturers. The Washington Times reported that the agency awarded contracts to companies producing the berets in Romania, Sri Lanka, China and other Third World countries.

One of the contracts went to a British firm that owns a network of low-wage apparel factories in China. The Chinese plants will produce more than 617,000 berets, the Pentagon told the Washington Times. They have delivered 154,000, with another 77,000 in transit.

When word got out that communist China was among the beret suppliers, it created a problem on Capitol Hill.

In a letter sent Friday to President Bush, 75 House members said the June 14 deadline does not give American manufacturers enough time to fill the Army's order.

"This seemingly arbitrary deadline for the new berets will cause U.S. firms to lose millions of dollars," the letter said, noting that a federal law known as the Berry Amendment requires the Pentagon to buy only American-made clothing. The Pentagon got a waiver of that requirement for the beret order.

"Making berets in China for the U.S. Army is ludicrous," Jason Denny, 26, an ex-Ranger, told the Washington Times. "These are American soldiers. They should be in American-made uniforms."

At a joint Pentagon news conference Friday, Shinseki and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz left open the possibility that the date for the switch could be moved if deemed appropriate to give the business to U.S. hatmakers.

Wolfowitz said the entire matter is under review.

In the meantime, the Army settled one source of controversy. Shinseki said he had accepted a Ranger offer to switch from black to tan berets _ enabling them to keep an exclusive color.