Army Fighting An Umbrella War -- The Only Line Of Defense Men Have Against Rain Is Raincoat

WASHINGTON - Any early-morning rain outside the Pentagon brings a curious sight.

Air Force and Navy officers stroll in from the far reaches of the Pentagon's vast parking lots, carrying umbrellas.

Army generals disembarking from staff cars are met with umbrella-toting aides who shelter the generals as they splash through the puddles.

Army soldiers and officers below the rank of general sprint with gritted teeth through the rain, bursting in through the doors soaking wet, their service ribbons bleeding dye onto their uniform shirts, their trouser creases long gone - and mad as a bunch of wet hens.

If you're in the Army you're not allowed to carry an umbrella, under current and long-standing regulations - at least if you're a man. Army women are allowed to hoist black umbrellas.

In the Air Force and Navy, both men and women can use umbrellas. The Marines' policy is the same as the Army's - women, but not men, can use them - but the Marines apparently like it that way.

The Army's prohibition against men carrying umbrellas goes back so far in history that nobody remembers why the rule was issued in the first place.

Doesn't matter. It's "the rules."

Of course, the Army issues each soldier a raincoat. Anyone with military experience will understand that the Army builds good tanks, but not good raincoats.

So a revolutionary proposal to allow male soldiers to carry umbrellas sprouted last October in the basement of the Pentagon and made its way to the Army's personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Frederick Vollrath.

The idea is that men wearing dress or regular office uniforms would be authorized to use their own umbrellas. Black only, of course. Troops wearing fatigues out in the field would get wet, as always.

The author of the proposal, Army Col. Vickie Longenecker, is steamed up about the no-umbrella regulation not just because of its illogic, but because it unfairly singles out women.

Longenecker, the Army's director of human resources, said she tried to get the Army's top general, Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer, to explain the logic of the regulation, "but he wouldn't do it. There is no logic," she said.

In an official statement, Reimer said: "The (anti-umbrella) regulation is clear, and we follow regulations in the Army."

That kind of "because I said so" answer hasn't gone down well in the ranks. Army staff officers believe the majority of soldiers, from privates to three-star generals, see nothing unmanly about carrying an umbrella.

"Air Force and Navy guys don't get wet. We do," says an Army lieutenant colonel who works in the Pentagon. "It's stupid."

Reimer, who could make the change with a stroke of a pen, remains unmoved. When pressed, he changes the subject.

"Given all of the other challenges we have ongoing, I don't think this is the time to address this issue," he said in response to questions posed by Army Times, an independent weekly newspaper that champions soldiers' welfare.

Why such resistance?

"Nobody wants to go down in history as the `umbrella general,' " a senior officer explained.

Meanwhile, the controversy, which was stoked by a May 5 Army Times story skewering the Army for its umbrella policy, seems to be growing.

Enith Hickman, the Times' letters editor, said she got more mail on umbrellas than on any other issue in memory, and 90 percent of it was in favor of allowing men to use umbrellas.

In one letter, an officer recounted struggling through a storm on his way to Secret Service headquarters in downtown Washington.

Sheepishly explaining the Army's no-umbrella policy as he stood dripping in the hallway, he was asked by a Secret Service officer:

"How can you be trusted to defend the country if you're too dumb to carry an umbrella?"

Wrote Pfc. Dave Matthews, of Fort Bragg, N.C.: "If I were a civilian and had a son, I would not say, `Hey, son, see that soldier standing in the rain? I want you to grow up and be like that!' Instead, I would say, `Hey, son, see that wet soldier? He's a dork!' "