Military’s ‘Buy American’ law has exceptions

At boot camp, U.S. Army recruits receive four sets of camouflage fatigues, 100 percent American- made. For women, the clothing package from Uncle Sam is missing one layer: undies. Neither gender gets sneakers.

A 1941 law directs the Pentagon to choose made-in-the- U.S.A. products when buying clothing for soldiers. Still, recruits receive cash allowances to buy items such as sneakers and women’s underwear, even if they come from China.

New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., the last major manufacturer to produce athletic footwear in the United States, may gain by forcing the government to live up to its own rules. The House voted this month to require the Pentagon to give American-made athletic shoes to recruits, after more than three years of lobbying by New Balance.

“It’s the law and it should be complied with, not circumvented,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who co-sponsored the measure and has New Balance factories in his state. “Purchases made by the U.S. government should benefit our domestic economy.”

Athletic shoes and women’s underwear are two examples of how the government has skirted requirements to spend taxpayer money on American-made goods. The so-called Berry Amendment, a World War II-era rule that directs the Defense Department to favor American-made food and textile products, has been eroded by trends in manufacturing that have sent many plants overseas.

“We’re saying the law is pretty clear, so follow the law,” Matt LeBretton, vice president of public affairs for Boston-based New Balance, said in a phone interview. “There is a pride piece here, too. Our soldiers should be wearing goods that were made in the U.S.”

The military’s efforts to expand personal choice for recruits on items such as sneakers, women’s panties, bras, purses and pumps may also conflict with the law’s intent.

Those options may be appreciated, especially by women who don’t want an Army or Air Force acquisition officer choosing their undergarments.

Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman, declined to comment on how much the military spends on cash allowances for recruits. She referred the question to individual service units.

The Air Force spends about $3.9 million on vouchers a year, said a spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley. Its roughly 30,000 recruits get $75 each year for sneakers that can be redeemed for the product of their choice at military-exchange stores. Female recruits get about $275 more in vouchers for pumps, underwear, stockings and purses when they enter basic training, she said.

The Army provides similar cash allowances, according to data from Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman. It decided to issue cash allowances for recruits’ running shoes and women’s underwear because of the wide range of sizes and needs, Hall said.