With the toll of Marines killed in Iraq mounting, the Marine Corps is no longer requiring the Marines notifying families of such deaths to wear the Corps' distinctive dress blue uniform.
The change, authorized by Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, was made because the public was beginning to associate the blue uniform, usually worn during ceremonial or joyous occasions, with death and tragedy, officials said.
Officers and senior enlisted Marines making notification visits are now ordered to wear the Corps' green uniform, known as alphas.
The switch has caused a rift among active-duty and retired Marines. Some, including recruiters and casualty assistance officers, applaud the switch. But others say it smacks of disrespect for the dead Marines and their families.
"Casualty notification is a solemn event and deserves full honors," said Col. John Toolan, who disagrees with the switch.
Toolan, who led the 1st Marine Regiment during the 2003 assault on Baghdad and April's offensive in Fallouja, said the dress blues were a perfect symbol of "a noble profession that must often balance the euphoria of battles won and the pain of brothers lost."
But Gunnery Sgt. Cindy Grubb, operations chief for the Corps' casualty branch, said wearing the dress blues while notifying families had begun to associate the uniform unfairly with bad news.
"We want to keep that positive image of the blues," she said.
The latest casualty count shows 1,513 members of the U.S. military killed in Iraq, including more than 460 Marines. Most of the Marines were part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton.
The uniform change, announced to Marines last month, is part of an overhaul of the Corps' procedure for notifying families and providing them with emotional and financial support.
The goal is to make notifications quicker and with more information about the cause of death and then be able to provide help for family members, including aid in arranging funerals and burials. Marine Corps brass were displeased after the assault on Baghdad with how casualty notifications were being handled on the home front.
The dress blue uniforms are still authorized for funerals and memorial services, as well as weddings, Toys for Tots events and the annual Marine Corps birthday celebration. Considered the most distinctive of all U.S. military uniforms, the dress blues are also featured in Marine Corps recruiting advertisements.
The green uniform, akin to a business suit, is worn, for example, when Marines testify before Congress or address community groups.
Marine Corps policy requires that families be notified in person of a relative's death. Marines making the calls are backed by a Navy chaplain and sometimes a corpsman or doctor.
Although all military services have procedures for assisting family members, the Marine Corps prides itself on outdoing the other services by surrounding the grieving family with support. Only the Marine Corps required notification officers to wear dress uniform.
The switch was announced in an order from Hagee to all Marines. "A negative connotation has been attached to Marines in the dress blue uniform because of the death notifications," the order said. "This is contrary to the pride and tradition of the dress blue uniform."
Though the switch has gone largely unnoticed among civilians, it has been the subject of considerable debate on websites and publications geared to the military community.
"I think this is a slap in the face to Marines and their families," retired Master Sgt. Frederick C. Montney III of Newark, Del., said of the switch to alphas. "If we do this, why don't we just show up in cammies?" he asked, referring to the common camouflage uniforms.
But 1st Sgt. Stephen A. Thomas said he had seen scared looks on people's faces when they spotted Marines in the dress blue uniform.
Thomas said he was on his way to a community event at Greensboro, N.C., when a woman spotted him and "immediately had this horrible look on her face and asked me if I was going to deliver bad news."
"The association of dress blues and bad news should not be something the Marine Corps should be promoting, unintentionally or not," he said.
Retired Col. John Kaheny of San Diego said the dress blues had always been linked to the idea of Marines being killed.
Marine lore, Kaheny noted, holds that the red stripe on the side of the trousers represents blood shed by Marines during the U.S. war with Mexico in 1847, events known as the battle for the Halls of Montezuma.
"I guess I'm a traditionalist," said Kaheny, who opposes shifting to the green uniform.