Tactical

West Point historians inform the Army Navy Game uniform selection

Each year since 2016 both Army and Navy have unveiled special football uniforms ahead of the storied annual rivalry matchup in December.

For the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the unveiling is a chance to highlight the Army’s history and connect the service with its veterans and current soldiers.

Army Times talked with the leader of the team at the West Point history department who spearheads selecting which unit the school will honor, teaming with the athletic department and Nike, which creates the uniforms.

Lt. Col. John Zdeb first enlisted in the Army in 1997 from his hometown of Schaumburg, Illinois but within a few years decided to go the officer route. That led to his acceptance at West Point, where he graduated in the Class of 2004.

The armor officer served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, eastern Europe and Kuwait. He got to return to his alma mater as a teacher in 2013 before heading back out to big Army.

Zdeb came back to West Point to teach military history in 2020 and quickly volunteered to help with the history department’s uniform team.

“It’s so humbling to be honest,” he said. “There’s certain things you get to do in life, things you never expected to have input and be involved with.”

The lieutenant colonel said there’s much more to selecting the uniform and various features than people might think. It’s actually a two-year process from inception to unveiling.

Though don’t expect any sneak peeks at next year’s uniform in this article, participants are sworn to secrecy and must sign a non-disclosure agreement to work on the team.

“There’s so much anticipation,” he said. “Knowing the reveal is coming, anticipating how it’s going to be received. It took on added importance for me this year, being a division I served with.”

Units honored with past Army uniforms:

  • 2016: 82nd Airborne Division
  • 2017: 10th Mountain Division
  • 2018: 1st Infantry Division
  • 2019: 1st Cavalry Division
  • 2020: 25th Infantry Division
  • 2021: U.S. Army Special Forces Command
  • 2022: 1st Armored Division
  • 2023: 3rd Infantry Division

Source: U.S. Military Academy at West Point

The four-officer team, which Zdeb currently leads, looks at past uniform selections and seeks out units in the Army, usually divisions that have a significant story to tell. This year’s uniform honors the 3rd Infantry Division, one of multiple units that Zdeb served with during his career.

The 3rd ID has a storied history. Activated in 1917 for service in World War I, the unit earned its nickname, “Rock of the Marne” after its performance in the Aisne-Marne Offensive, protecting Paris by stationing itself on the banks of the Marne River.

One of its battalions rushed to the riverbanks as French troops retreated and held off the advance of the German attack. Though surrounded during a subsequent battle, 3rd ID took the bulk of what would prove to be the final German offensive of the war.

The division continued showing its mettle in World War II, being among the first U.S. units to see ground operations in Europe. Honors continued to pile up as the division saw distinguished service in the Korean War and Vietnam War.

Elements of that history are sprinkled through this year’s uniform, “Rock of the Marine” adorns the back of the players’ helmets, the division’s bulldog mascot “Rocky” perches on the side of the dome. Stenciled numbers are reminiscent of common vehicle stenciling on Army equipment.

But the desert-tan color is a nod to more recent service, the division’s “Thunder Run” during the 2003 invasion that kicked off the Iraq War. The run struck deep into enemy territory and put soldiers into Baghdad far sooner than the enemy anticipated, helping bring invasion operations to a quick close.

Zdeb and his team of two majors and a captain got a brief respite to enjoy the uniform unveiling, which happened just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday at an academy formation.

They also compile historical information for West Point and Army websites related to the uniform and occasionally the experts are invited on camera to explain the significance of various uniform aspects.

Soon after last year’s game, the team was drumming up the next unit to honor in 2024 and present for approval to the academy’s athletic department this past spring. Once that unit and recommended elements are approved, Zdeb and his team switched back to concluding final items on this year’s uniform.

After this year’s game concludes they’ll be rolling along to submit a candidate for 2025 as Nike designers finalize the 2024 uniform. It’s an ever-rotating cycle, he said.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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