Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Soldiers Prevented from Using Better Body Armor

Soldiers Prevented from Using Better Body Armor
Michelle Pilecki

Nearly three years in Iraq and we're still debating decent armor for the troops? The latest chapter of this ongoing saga was kicked off earlier this month when Soldiers for the Truth, an advocacy group, uncovered and quoted a Marine Corps forensic study criticizing the current Interceptor body armor:

[A]s many as 42% of the Marine casualties who died from isolated torso injuries could have been prevented with improved protection in the areas surrounding the plated areas of the vest.
Nearly 23% might have benefited from protection along the mid-axillary line of the lateral chest. Another 15% died from impacts through the unprotected shoulder and upper arm.

The New York Times extrapolated some numbers, and subsequently reported that "300 or more lives might have been saved with improved body armor" in the Iraq war. The revelation has even stirred Congress, who are talking about holding hearings. No sense of urgency there. Problems of both quality and quantity of protective gear have plagued the Iraq war for more than a couple of years now, but it's not a priority issue -- or a continuing scandal -- for the news media. Meanwhile, there may already exist a better set of body armor, Dragon Skin made by Pinnacle Armor of Fresno, Calif., according to industry observers like Defense Review (warning: very technical discussion), and many Iraq-bound soldiers and Marines have spent their own money to get it -- some $6,000 each. But now they face possible retaliation, says SFFT.

The soldiers, who are currently staging for combat operations from a secret location, reported that their commander told them if they were wearing Pinnacle Dragon Skin and were killed their beneficiaries might not receive the death benefits from their $400,000 SGLI life insurance policies. The soldiers were ordered to leave their privately purchased body armor at home or face the possibility of both losing their life insurance benefit and facing disciplinary action.

How much better is Dragon Skin than the DoD's current Interceptor (another way technical piece)? Defense Review not only has the technical specs but also a testimonial from a satisfied (i.e. alive) customer in Iraq.

[At first] I was slightly put off by the weight of the armor. It was heavy and slightly uncomfortable to begin with, but I have to admit, it kind of "adapted" to my body after a day or two. The weight distribution is a definite plus.

However, we were involved in a IED (improvised explosive device) attack and small arms fire on the [redacted date]. After the contact, when I removed my tactical vest, I saw that I had taken hits in the back of my vest. They were 7.62x39mm (AK-47) and they were inches apart. I was hit in the back (and we checked, if I was wearing any other body armor, I would not be writing this to you), as it were both low hits (below the typical 10"x12" plate coverage). In terms of bruising, nothing whatsoever. I did not even KNOW that I was hit twice until I took off my tactical vest (this was after about 2 hours after the contact) and saw the damage. It was only then that we took a close look at my body armor that we realized I was hit twice by an AK-47. I had another ricochet hit around the top end of my back that may have caused serious injury to my lower neck.

Most news outlets are still clueless about the existence of what many military types consider a superior body armor, but credit PBS' Newshour with setting up a debate between a Pentagon consultant, defending the DoD's current choice of body armor, and SFFT's president, Retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Roger Charles, describing the benefits of Dragon Skin. Both the Army and Marine Corps declined to participate. (Go here for the transcript and links to streaming video and audio, and here for Defense Review's immediate counter-argument to the criticism of Dragon Skin.) The discussion also includes a good show-and-tell on how modern body armor works.

SFFT's Charles figures that the Pentagon is being stubborn about Dragon Skin because of "bureaucratic turf protection."

We were told by several independent consultants who work for the Pentagon that cannot be named because of fear of losing their jobs that this was probably the best available body armor. It's what they would take to Baghdad. They do not have any financial ties with Pinnacle Armor. We're not saying it's the best. We're saying it ought to get a fair test.