WASHINGTON — About 200 protesters gathered Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial to demonstrate against Army plans to issue black berets to all its soldiers — an honor that had been reserved exclusively for the elite Rangers for more than two decades.
"Why would someone harm such a noble heritage?" former Ranger Bob Black asked the crowd.
The Rangers are a small, elite force chosen for some of the Army's most hazardous and demanding missions. Organizers said the memorial to President Lincoln was chosen as the rally site because the former president briefly served as a ranger himself, albeit in 1832 as a member of an independent group of volunteers called rangers who fought Indians on the Illinois frontier and bore little resemblance to modern-day Rangers.
But as part of an Army effort intended to boost morale and promote unity, the berets will become standard issue for all soldiers starting June 14 — the Army's birthday.
But the protesters rejected those efforts.
"It's just not the way to do it," said former World War II Ranger John Kormann of Chevy Chase, Md. "I've seen young soldiers almost transformed during Ranger training. To some nice person sitting behind a desk, what will it mean to them?"
The only other distinguishing feature of the Rangers' uniform is a patch worn on the right shoulder.
According to the Army's Web site, armor and armored infantry troops were permitted to wear the black beret from 1973 until then-Chief of Staff Bernard W. Rogers banned unofficial headgear in 1979. Rangers were authorized the beret under a 1975 regulation.
The Rangers' efforts to reverse the decision have gained the attention of President Bush. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said last week that Bush had asked the Department of Defense to review its decision.
But Army spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis said Friday that the Army is not aware of any formal or informal requests from the White House for a briefing on the matter.
Protest organizers shuttled between Capitol Hill offices last week, hoping to build support for their cause. Their supporters include Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., whose state is home to the 75th Ranger Regiment headquarters at Fort Benning.
Also, former Ranger David Nielsen, 30, completed his 700-mile walk that started Feb. 10 from Fort Benning to the nation's capital. About a dozen other former Rangers joined him for the last leg of the trip, and they marched Saturday across the Potomac River to the rally.
Nielsen, of Leesburg, Va., said he walked in protest, hoping to draw attention to the issue.