Writing Soldiers – Everything You Wanted to Know about Writing about a Soldier In Uniform

If you are going to write about soldiers, one of the sure fire things you need to get right are the uniforms, especially if you want veterans and their families to enjoy the book.  Nothing irritates me more than when I’m reading a book or watching a movie and the wrong uniform is used or described.

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Army Combat Uniform
image from shopmyexchange.com

Every Soldier in the Army uses 2 basic uniforms: the Army Combat Uniform (above) and the Army Service Uniform (below).  Additionally, depending on your job, you may be issued and authorized to wear other uniforms.  The Army has webpage which discusses all of its new uniforms coming out and how they will be worn.

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Army Service Uniform
image from wikiwand.com

This blog post will only be talking about the Army Combat Uniform and its evolution over the years.

The Army has gone through quite a few different type of daily duty uniforms over the past decades.  Depending on when your story takes place, you may be surprised to learn that the uniform the Army was using is not the one you are thinking about or describing in your novel.

Army current OCP ACU

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image from army.mil

The Army transitioned fully to the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) Army Combat Uniform (ACU) with the Scorpion W2 pattern on October 1, 2019, replacing the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) ACUs.  It was available to use in conjunction with the UCP ACUs (basically the Soldier could choose which one he wanted to wear) since 2015. Both uniforms were commonly referred to as your daily uniform or ACUs.

It’s important to note that the ACU is the uniform used most commonly in the military – it’s used for garrison duties (admin, logistics, classroom training, etc.), field exercises and training, and combat.  Most Soldiers have ‘field’ uniforms that get ragged and dirty when they are in combat or field training.  And then they have ‘garrison’ uniforms which they keep clean and sharp when not in the field.

The uniform includes: the jacket (with rank, uniform designation, US flag, and other patches that I will discuss laster in this post), trousers, tee shirt, belt, socks, boots, and either a beret or a cap (will discuss those later as well).

One common misconception is that most Soldiers continue to wear their uniforms after work; for the most part this is not true. After the duty day, most Soldiers change into civilian clothes – they don’t go drinking, to movie theaters, or even restaurants off base in uniform.  They may wear them driving home, stopping for gas or groceries or a quick bite to eat at a fast food restaurant, but most Soldiers take off the uniform after work, shower and change into civilian clothes.  A lot of old movies have soldiers spending time off base in their uniforms, and when I joined in 1987, that was somewhat common, but the new Army frowns on this practice and occasionally some base commanders will actually forbid it.  They are generally allowed to eat lunch (and sometimes breakfast) in restaurants, but most don’t go out to eat dinner (especially on dates) or to the movies.

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Soldiers eating lunch in their combat uniforms
image from dailyherald.com

Also, if a Soldier is going to drink and be obnoxious it doesn’t help to have your last name known to all and the unit you are assigned.  It just doesn’t make sense.

I once edited a play where the writer had his characters after work wearing the uniforms hanging out at a bar and drinking.  I advised him that this wasn’t the culture anymore and he left it in there.  When he did a pre-screening for his play, the military members of the audience raised a lot of objections with this specific part of the play.

These new OCP ACUs have a variety of features that make them superior to older uniforms. First, the uniforms have insect repellant Permethrin infused and care has to be taken: no softeners when washing, no laundering, no starch, no ironing, and don’t hang in the sun. They also have an anti-wrinkle treatment, so ironing and starch are seen as overkill.

The military only allows certain outerwear to be worn over the uniform in times of rain, snow, or cold weather, these include fleece jackets, gore-tex rain jackets, and field jackets. All of these must be worn with rank and Last name displayed.


The Army ACU uniform is worn with a Patrol Cap, a boonie hat, or a beret.

The Patrol Cap and the Boonie Hat have rank in the center front and a Name Tag in the center back. Both of these are used in field conditions. If there is actual danger of enemy combat, the Soldier would wear his ballistic helmet.

The Berets have a Flash on the front over the left eye, and a unit crest at the center of the flash. There are a few colors: black berets are worn by most of the Army, Maroon Berets are worn by Airborne Soldiers, Green Berets are worn by Special Forces soldiers, and Tan Berets are worn by Rangers (Soldiers in Ranger units not graduates of the Ranger School).

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Patrol Cap
Image from hessenantique.com
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Boonie hats
Image from transatlantic.co.uk
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Image from wizizero.com


Wear of badges (and the uniform in general) is covered in the manual AR 670-1.

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Left Shoulder Patches
Image from Wikipedia.org

There are a number of patches that are worn on the uniform, some are required to be worn and some are optional. the Optional patches are usually earned either by accomplishing something in the military or attending a specific training.

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Right Shoulder Patches
Image from Wikipedia.org

All Soldiers must wear:

  • U.S. Flag – (As seen above) Worn on the right shoulder. There is a color version for garrison and a subdued camouflage version for combat and training. The reason the flag looks backward is because it’s meant to look like the flag is blowing in the wind as the Soldier moves forward. It is always worn on the right shoulder because the right side is considered the site of highest honor (seems kind of prejudice against left handed people, but hey). Attached with Velcro.
  • Rank – Worn in the center of the chest; attached with velcro, but may be sewn
  • Unit – Worn on the left shoulder. Depending on the unit, this patch may include a tab (such as airborne). This doesn’t necessarily mean the Soldier is airborne qualified (able to parachute out of planes), it just means that is the patch for his/her unit. Attached with Velcro.
  • U.S. Army Patch – Worn on the Left side of the chest on the pocket, attached with Velcro but may be sewn.
  • Name Patch – Worn on Right side of the chest on the pocket, attached with Velcro but may be sewn.

Optional Patches:

Combat Patch – Worn under the U.S. flag on the right shoulder, this can only be worn if the Soldier has been deployed to combat. The unit patch he wears should represent the unit he went to war with. Some Soldiers may have been to war with numerous units, and they can change the patch depending on how they feel that day, but only one can be worn at a time. Attached with Velcro.


As many tabs as earned by the Soldier can be worn on the left shoulder.

  • Special Forces – Soldier needs to have completed the Special Forces Qualification Course and earned his Green Beret
  • Ranger – Soldier needs to have completed the Ranger Course
  • Sapper – Soldier needs to have completed the Sapper Course
  • Airborne – This tab must be part of the unit’s patch to wear it

Combat and Special Skill Badges

Only one of the following can be worn on the left chest above the pocket

  • Combat Infantry Badge – must have fought in active ground combat and be an infantry or special forces soldier. You can also have earned the badge twice, in which case you would have a start on top of the badge. (Every conflict before Sept 18, 2001 counts as one badge and every conflict after Sep 18, 2001 counts as a second badge – so the most any Soldier could have at this moment would be 2)
  • Expert Infantry Badge – Soldier must pass the Expert Infantry Badge certification
  • Combat Action Badge – must have fought in active ground combat and not be infantry or special forces soldier.
  • Expert Soldier Badge – Soldier must pass the Expert Soldier Badge certification
  • Combat Medical Badge – Soldier must have fought in active ground combat and be a medical profession.
  • Expert Field medical Badge – Soldier must pass the Expert Field Medical Badge certification

As many badges as earned can be worn of the following:

  • Army Aviator Badge
  • Army Flight Surgeon Badge
  • Army Astronaut Badge
  • Explosive Ordinance Badge
  • Parachutist Badge
  • Pathfinder Badge
  • Scuba Badge
  • Military Freefall Parachutist Badge
  • Air Assault Badge
  • Diver Badges

There is a fine line between having a lot of badges and actually doing your job. It is generally impossible for a young 25 year old soldier to have more than 4 badges as usually more senior Soldiers are selected for the training and the badges require a Soldier to spend one to three months training and certifying for the badge, which means that Soldier won’t be doing his/ her job. Supervisors are reluctant to lose their soldiers for long periods of time. (Ranger school is upwards of three months with the pre-Ranger course that is required, SCUBA school is 6 weeks, etc). There have been many examples of young soldiers getting out of basic training, buying a bunch of badges at the store and putting them on their uniform, and then flying home in their uniform and getting caught by senior Soldiers in the airport. It is literally impossible for a 20 year old to have all the badges on the image at the top of this post.

Uniforms of the Past

Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) ACUs

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Universal Camouflage Pattern ACUs
Image from Wikiwand.com

These uniforms were used between 2004 – 2019 (last date used is Sept. 30, 2019)and replaced the BDUs.

They were not favored by Soldiers and the overall concession was that the pattern was useless.

“The only thing that the [UCP] camo pattern on the [Army Combat Uniform] ever blended with was gravel,” one commenter wrote on the Army’s 10th Mountain Division’s Facebook page. Added another, bluntly: “Worst pattern ever.”

Battle Dress Uniforms

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Battle Dress Uniform
Image from Wikipedia.org

These were used between 1980 and 2004. They came in light weight and heavy weight for cold weather.


Image from wikipedia.org

These were used between 1952-1989. In the 1980s, there was a transition to the BDU uniforms, and some units wore the OG-107 and some wore the BDUs. These were excellent uniforms for tropical areas such as Vietnam and Panama.

Desert Camouflage Uniforms

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Desert Camouflage Uniform
Image from Wikipedia.org

These were used between between 1991 to about 2010 for Soldiers assigned to desert environments.

Other Uniforms

Mess Dress – for extremely fancy situations

Cook Whites – worn by Army cooks

Flight Suit – worn by Army Pilots

Pregnancy ACUs – Ordered for pregnant Soldiers


These are the basic of the Army Combat Uniforms. There are some other speciality uniforms that I didn’t cover. If you have any questions about writing Soldiers and their uniforms, please write in the comments below. This post was current in 2019 – but the Army military uniform is always involving. You can find the most up to date information on current wear in the regulations.

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