By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
Without the proper uniform, a service member cannot report for duty. Even with the most meticulous care, a pair of cammies or a set of service dress blues might not be inspection ready and a Sailor or Marine may need a new uniform quickly. Whether because of an incomplete or lost sea bag, advancement or promotion, or a new waist measurement, service members frequently need to buy additional uniform gear, and that can be expensive.
Thanks to uniform lockers and thrift shops operated by Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society volunteers, including some who also serve on active duty, Sailors and Marines can find many of the uniform items they need—when they need them—at a nominal cost and often for free.
“A couple of months ago a young Sailor arrived from Hawaii,” recalled NMCRS Whidbey Island Director Elton Gifford. “He’d packed and shipped everything but one set of his working uniform. After his household goods shipment was picked up in Hawaii, he was notified that his PCS orders had been changed to report to NAS Whidbey Island in Washington, instead of New Orleans, Louisiana. He didn’t have an appropriate uniform to report for duty when he walked into our office. But, he found what he needed in our thrift shop. It didn’t cost him a penny. We just said, ‘when your uniforms arrive with your household goods, just bring these back.’”
NMCRS Whidbey Island’s thrift shop has such a large inventory of uniforms that service members drive more than an hour from Naval Station Everett, or make a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Naval Station Puget Sound in Bremerton or Naval Submarine Base Bangor to shop. “We get uniforms donated every single day,” Gifford said. “When someone retires or separates from the military, they often donate their uniforms. We have volunteers who work the uniform section of our thrift shop who make sure they uniform items are current and good quality. We never put a uniform on the shelf or hanging rack that can’t be worn tomorrow.”
Service members do receive an annual uniform allowance; however, the cost of new uniforms typically exceeds the allowance by a fair amount. For example, the current uniform allowance for a first class petty officer selected for advancement to chief petty officer is $1,115.94. But the cost of a complete CPO Sea Bag with all new uniform items is $2,240.82 for men and $2,156.48 for women. Even if a Sailor or Marine has a closet full of uniforms, he or she might need new set of service dress blues for a special occasion, and that can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the service member’s rank and years in service. At a NMCRS thrift shop, a Sailor can buy a complete, like-new set of service
dress blues for $20. Some NMCRS offices don’t operate thrift shops, but do operate uniform lockers and all gently-used donated uniforms are provided to active duty Sailors and Marines at no cost.
“Marines take advantage of the uniforms and items available in our thrift shop,” said NMCRS Yuma, Arizona Director Lora O’Hara. “Recently, a Marine officer came into our thrift shop looking for a service dress blouse. He was about to report for duty to his new command when he realized the one he’d had in storage for a couple months no longer fit. Marines rarely wear this uniform but that officer had to have that uniform to check in. Marine Corps officers are required to have every uniform, whether they will wear it or not. When he showed up in our thrift shop, he’d already been to the MCX Uniform Shop and found a new blouse would cost $300. Instead, he bought a like-new blouse from us for $10.”
Previously, aboard Naval Station Naples in Italy, the Naples Overseas Club accepted donated uniforms in its thrift store. However, they decided to get rid of their uniform inventory, so NMCRS Naples director Margaret Copson and her volunteers decided to take on the job and established a uniform locker in their office. NMCRS Naples Chair of Volunteers Maura Justice and her family had PCS’d to Naples from Kings Bay, Georgia, where she managed the NMCRS Kings Bay uniform locker. “Every item in our uniform locker is free,” Copson said. “We accept gently used, clean uniform items and make them available to Sailors that need them. People leave our office saying, ‘I just saved $200! I just saved $80!’ Recently, we had a Sailor who had been accepted to an officer commissioning program and needed all new uniforms. He found everything he needed and he walked out of our uniform locker with a big smile.”
Sometimes service members need new uniforms to accommodate physical changes. In recent years the USMC reinstituted the tradition of wearing dress uniforms on Fridays. Marines weren’t used to wearing that uniform more than a couple times each year. They are issued dress blues at boot camp, but several years in, those uniforms don’t always fit. Pregnant Marines have to have to buy all new maternity uniforms, which they wear for a few months. Those costs add up, especially for junior enlisted Marines and Sailors.
“We have just about every size uniform pant, skirt, blouse and cammies,” said Elton Gifford. “Larger sizes don’t stay on the rack too long. And we have everything you need—pea coats, overcoats, boots, rating badges, medals, ribbons. If you need it, we’ve probably got it.
Occasionally, uniform policy changes—a new design is approved, new materials are used. Active duty volunteers are particularly helpful in NMCRS thrift shops and uniform lockers because they know exactly what to look for when sorting donated uniform items. They inspect each item to ensure it meets current policy and regulations.
NMCRs uniform lockers and thrift shops are a real lifesaver – like the time a Marine Lance Corporal suddenly became a full-time single parent of two small children. His wife had left and taken the car, which had all his uniforms in it. He needed uniforms quickly and at a price he could afford. He found what he needed at an NMCRS thrift shop.
Other times, military leaders step in and work directly with the local NMCRS office when one of their Sailors or Marines needs uniform items. “The Command Master Chief might call and say that a Sailor reported aboard but his sea bag was lost by the airlines. “A Sailor who goes to captain’s mess is required to report with a complete sea bag, ready for inspection,” said Elton Gifford. “If they’re missing any items, they’re sent over to our thrift shop to complete their sea bag so they can pass inspection.”
“Our goal is to make sure uniforms get to the people who need them,” Elton Gifford said. “We’re here to help service members.”