Donning your beret is likely one of the proudest moments in your military career. Each beret has a long history, usually unique to the unit and the military personnel wearing it. So, when you make it through a grueling assessment and selection, putting on your new distinctive headgear is the first step of what’s sure to be a fulfilling career.
Soldiers wore different colors for years despite not being actually authorized to wear anything but a patrol cap. Now, there are enough authorized berets throughout the U.S. military that it could make a violent rainbow if they were all in formation together. Who wears what can be confusing, especially when two units use the same color.
You can start by narrowing it down to just the branches that issue berets; the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marine Corps don’t have any authorized for their personnel. But the U.S. Army and Air Force have enough to make up for the rest.
U.S. Army black beret
It is important to note that, like the green beret, the black beret was worn in an unauthorized fashion for some time. The Army’s armored and cavalry forces started wearing black berets in the early 1960s, but its first authorized use wasn’t until the Rangers picked it up.
Gen. Eric Shinseki and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz announced their decision to adopt the black beret as the official headgear of the entire U.S. Army on March 16, 2001. Their announcement enraged the 75th Ranger Regiment, and several Rangers called for the decision to be reversed.
The Rangers felt their hard-earned history was being tarnished by handing out their headgear to soldiers who didn’t undergo the rigorous assessment and selection required to become Rangers. Shinseki never walked back the decision, and the black berets became a staple in the U.S. Army — for a while.
The Army’s patrol cap replaced the black beret as the default headgear for the Army Combat Uniform in 2011, but it’s still required for soldiers wearing the Army Service Uniform (ASU). ASUs are now transitioning to an optional, formal, or ceremonial uniform as the new Army Green Service Uniform is phased in.
U.S. Army Ranger khaki “tan” beret
The elite airborne soldiers of the 75th Ranger Regiment wear the tan beret, as well as the Ranger-qualified cadre assigned to the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade. The distinctive beret has become a hallmark of the Ranger way of life.
But the tan beret wasn’t the original headgear worn by the Rangers. The black beret was first authorized for Rangers to wear on January 30, 1975, when the modern battalions were stood up after the Vietnam War. But after the black beret was authorized for the Army’s entire formation, the Rangers chose a different beret color.
The 75th Ranger Regiment pivoted to a tan, or as it was originally designated, khaki-colored beret. Khaki was the color of one of the six combat teams of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), commonly referred to as Merrill’s Marauders. Merrill’s Marauders is where the lineage of the modern-day 75th Ranger Regiment began.
U.S. Army Special Forces green beret
U.S. Army Special Forces have worn the green beret since 1953 when Special Forces Maj. Herbert Brucker designated it as their headgear. In the same year, 1st Lt. Roger Pezelle adopted it for use on his A-team, Operational Detachment FA32. However, it was not officially authorized by the U.S. Army until 1961.
President John F. Kennedy authorized Special Forces to wear the famous green beret, marking it the first authorized unit beret in the U.S. military. Kennedy later described the green beret as a “symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”
The green beret is still worn today by soldiers who graduate from the Special Forces Qualification Course and are awarded the Special Forces tab.
U.S. Army airborne maroon beret
American airborne soldiers first wore the maroon beret in 1973 but weren’t authorized to wear it until 1980. The paratrooper’s distinctive maroon beret is now authorized in several different units in the U.S. military and several international military units.
Only soldiers assigned to airborne units can wear the maroon beret in the U.S. military. To be assigned to an airborne unit, a soldier has to pass the Basic Airborne Course at Ft. Moore. You can find soldiers sporting a maroon beret in units like the 82nd Airborne Division, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and many others.
U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) brown beret
The brown beret resulted from another clash between units. When the SFABs first stood up in 2018, an olive-drab green beret was originally chosen as the unit’s authorized headgear. After an uproar from the Special Forces community, the brown beret was selected instead.
The SFAB’s mission is to train and advise their host nation’s conventional military units. According to the U.S. Army, SFAB soldiers fight side by side with their trainees in any environment, so the color brown represents “dirt or mud akin to the ‘muddy boots’ moniker given to leaders who are always out with the troops.”
U.S. Air Force Security Forces dark blue beret
Air Force Security Forces first adopted the dark blue beret in 1976. Security Forces trace the lineage of their beret back to the 1041st Security Police Squadron (Test) during “Operation Safeside” from 1965 to 1967. The Security Forces have been activated and deactivated since then. Airmen assigned to the 820th Security Forces Group currently wear it today.
According to the Air Force, the blue beret symbolizes “achievement and recognition” and aligns with the unit’s motto, “Defensor Fortis,” which means defenders of the force. Like Rangers and their old black beret, the Security Forces adopting the dark blue beret caused an uproar from the combat controller community, who were already using it.
U.S. Air Force Combat Aviation Advisor charcoal brown beret
The Air Force’s Combat Aviation Advisor wears the “charcoal brown” beret exclusively under the 6th Special Operations Squadron. They train allied nations’ aviation units in aerial combat operations.
The brown beret was first authorized during a CAA graduation ceremony on Jan. 6, 2018.
“I can tell you what I expect when I see a brown beret. I expect to see a cultural expert — one that has a complete understanding of a host nation’s customs, culture, and way of life,” said Gen. Brad Webb (ret.), former Commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command, during the ceremony. “I expect to see a joint warfare expert…an expert in our way of warfare and expert in understanding our partner nation’s way of warfare. I expect [our members] to have the maturity to know how to blend those two together.”
According to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), the charcoal brown color represents fertile soil, grit, hard work, and commitment to transforming America’s allied nations’ militaries. The brown beret reminds the airmen wearing it “to look for potential where others see barrenness.”
U.S. Air Force Special Reconnaissance grey beret
AFSOC Special Reconnaissance airmen wear the’ “pewter grey” berets, first authorized in 1986. These guys have a long history dating back to WWII and have been activated and deactivated multiple times. Special Operations Weather Teams transitioned to SR teams on April 30, 2019.
They are likely some of the most badass weathermen out there. They are able to accurately assess meteorological conditions in hostile and denied territory, a mission set critical for planning operations because fighting a war in typhoons or other nasty weather can quickly jeopardize mission success.
U.S. Air Force Combat Controller red “scarlet” beret
The true kings of battle, AFSOC’s combat controllers wear the coveted red beret, officially recognized as scarlet, but no one calls it that. Combat controllers originally wore a blue beret, but transitioned to the scarlet color in 1978 and has remained their distinctive headgear since.
Combat controllers are the highest-trained forward observers in the U.S. military. They can call in everything from a danger-close gun run to a nuclear bomb. That’s because they are Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, the U.S. military’s highest close air support qualification.
U.S. Air Force Pararescueman maroon beret
AFSOC pararescueman — commonly referred to as PJs — are authorized the maroon beret, which is also typically referred to as a red beret by those who wear it. The color symbolizes the blood sacrificed by fellow PJs and their devotion to helping others in distress. That is true to their motto, “that others may live.”
The pararescue headgear was first authorized by the Air Force in 1966 and is still the standard for them today. They are some of the best-trained medics in the U.S. military and are skilled in both conventional and unconventional rescue operations.
U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resist, Escape (SERE) specialist pewter green beret
Sometimes described as pewter green or sage green, the SERE specialist beret belongs to the Air Force’s premier experts on survival. They have a history dating back to WWII, but like the other units, they’ve been activated, deactivated, and evolved over the years.
The SERE headgear was first authorized in 2004. It signifies the hard work and dedication of these airmen who not only train to prevent the enemies of our country from extracting information from our service members but also survive and escape impossible situations.
U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) black beret
The Air Force’s Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) airmen embed in Army and Marine Corps units on the frontline, enabling whoever they are with to have air strikes on speed dial. Their black headgear symbolizes their expert abilities to control the battlefield.
TACPs were authorized to wear the black beret in 1979, though their unit crest wasn’t finalized and approved for wear on it until 1985. Their lineage far predates the headgear as some of the earliest TACPs were active during the Korean War. They earned the unofficial nickname of ‘Air Force infantry.’
U.S. Air Force Academy blue beret
The Air Force Academy blue beret is worn by cadets once they reach their senior year, and by Air Force Academy cadre during Basic Cadet Training. This rarely-seen headgear is only found around the academy’s Colorado Springs campus or on Air Force bases where cadets attend summer internships.
This beret is meant to signify a cadet’s status as a senior and their proximity to graduating and joining the Air Force as commissioned officers. A cadet’s commitment varies by job and overall career path, but all graduates of the Air Force Academy will have proudly worn the distinctive blue headgear at some point in their career.
This story is updated to correct a previous version of the story that referred to Air Force Special Reconnaissance airmen by that career field’s previous title and add additional berets.
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