Body Armor: U.S. Soldiers Lack Best Protective Gear

Published 12/17/2003

I recently received a note from one of the few husbands who knows just what his wife wants as a holiday gift. The Army sergeant (who asked to remain anonymous) e-mailed me from Iraq asking my help in finding him a store to buy body armor for his wife.

Both the sergeant and his wife are serving in Iraq, and both have seen action. But, like thousands of U.S. soldiers, his wife was not given the vital ceramic plates for her Kevlar Interceptor vest to protect her from bullet wounds. Instead, he said, she had to scavenge to find plates left behind by Iraqi soldiers — plates of inferior quality that do not properly fit her vest.

The Pentagon confirms that at least 40,000 of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq don’t have basic Kevlar Interceptor vests or the ceramic plates needed for full protection.

As a law professor, I am more comfortable researching legal briefs than body armor, but I was thrown into this controversy in early September when I received a call from Richard Murphy, one of my students during his first year of law school. I wasn’t surprised to hear from Richard, but I was a bit surprised that he was calling from Iraq. His Army Reserve unit had been called up, so he had taken a leave from school to serve. What came as a greater surprise was that Richard’s mother had mailed him body armor because his entire unit was issued Vietnam-era flak jackets that are designed to stop shrapnel rather than bullets. The Interceptor vest can stop AK-47 rounds moving 2,750 feet a second.

Army Spc. John Fox must appreciate the difference. He was hit in the stomach by an AK-47 while on patrol in September in Fallujah. He was one of the lucky soldiers with a vest. The bullets set off three ammunition magazines and a smoke grenade he was carrying, The Washington Post reported. The vest protected him from the AK-47 rounds and the explosion of his own ammunition and grenade.

I first assumed that Murphy’s unit was a mix-up. Then I called retailers and manufacturers of body armor and was told that they had been deluged by such orders from the families of soldiers.

A Pentagon procurement officer then told me Interceptor vests were “non-priority” items, like tents. Accordingly, the military had decided to slowly phase out the old flak jackets in a one-for-one exchange program over 10 years. We invaded Iraq in the fifth year.

After I wrote about this shortage in a September Los Angeles Times column, I received dozens of e-mails and calls from troops in Iraq giving their own accounts. Some wrote that they had taped plates on the backs of their flak jackets to try to get some protection. Other units, they wrote, shifted the available vests from soldier to soldier.

This “swap and share” approach has forced soldiers in American and British units to play a dangerous version of Russian roulette. The first British death in the war occurred after Sgt. Steve Roberts was forced to give up his plates and was then shot in the chest while on patrol, according to The London Daily Telegraph.

Sgt. Zachariah Byrd from Colorado was luckier. Shortly before his unit was ambushed, a friend gave him his Interceptor vest. Byrd was hit four times by fire from an AK-47 and survived only because of the last-minute swap.

At a September House hearing, Gen. John Abizaid, head of all military forces in Iraq, admitted he could not give House members a good reason “why we started this war with protective vests that were in short supply.”

This left parents and spouses to buy body armor for their loved ones. Murphy’s mother, an elementary school teacher in Sciota, Pa., spent $650 to buy the protective plates. A Marin County, Calif., National Guard unit was outfitted with body armor donated by local law enforcement officials.

Pentagon officials told me they hope to have all of our troops in Iraq equipped with vests and plates in January — almost a year after we invaded Iraq.

Obituaries and news accounts raise the disturbing prospect that we have had soldiers seriously wounded or killed due to the shortage of body armor. Many note wounds to the chest and stomach areas — areas that might have been protected by the Interceptor vests and plates.

What is baffling is what the military was doing during the years since the previous Iraqi war. For at least a year before the current conflict, it was aware that an invasion of Iraq was likely, if not certain.

In response to questions about the lack of body armor, acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee simply stated that the attacks in Iraq “differed from our expectations.” But we give Kevlar vests to our police to patrol our cities. Why would the military think it safer for our troops to move around Baghdad than for a cop to walk around Boise?

Despite requests from a few members of Congress, there appears to be little movement to investigate the shortage of what seems to be a basic protective item for our troops. Capitol Hill politicians now have left for holiday vacations. When they return next month, they might want to give these troops more thought and consider whether we sent them into harm’s way but failed to outfit them with a basic item that could help keep them alive.

As for the sergeant, he finally located a set of plates for his wife on the Internet. He just hopes that it arrives quickly so they both can look forward to the New Year.

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