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Many Troops Don't Want Extra Body Armor
Atlanta Journal-Constitution  |  February 06, 2006
The extra body armor the Pentagon is issuing Soldiers and Marines in Iraq will not be a welcome addition for everyone.

While some say they won't go into battle without the protective side plates, others say they don't want to add any more weight to their gear, which can easily top 70 pounds.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Winchester, a 30-year-old Pepsi truck driver from Jesup, predicts the extra weight would become a hassle for him in his already cramped Humvee. The Georgia National Guard Soldier doesn't plan to wear the plates, citing the intense heat Soldiers face in Iraq.

"You think about how much of a pain in the neck your maneuvering will be. You will feel like a robot. You will feel like R2D2 in a turret. Forget that junk," said Winchester, a member of the Savannah-based 118th Field Artillery Regiment Task Force stationed at Al Asad Air Base.

Winchester is guarding U.S. supply convoys in the violent Al Anbar Province of western Iraq. He wears the military-issue neck and groin protectors attached to his body armor, but many other Soldiers have shed them, saying they hinder mobility.

The Army is sending the new side plates to every Soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan starting this month in an effort to shield body parts vulnerable to sniper fire and roadside bombs.

The Marines already have issued about 9,200 sets of side plates to troops in Iraq. They hope to have 28,800 sets there and in Afghanistan by April. Marine officials say the plates can withstand bullets fired from an AK-47 assault rifle, the weapon of choice among many insurgents in Iraq.

Cpl. Henry Patterson, 25, a Marine from Stone Mountain, said he definitely will wear the plates if he gets them. Patterson is headed back to Iraq this month with a Marietta-based reserve unit responsible for retrieving the bodies and body parts of dead Marines. He said he got used to the weight of his body armor when he served at Al Asad in 2004 and 2005.

"I would wear it so I don't get shot. A lot of Marines have died from getting shot in the side," said Patterson, a MARTA inspector in civilian life.

Army officials concede the standard body armor with neck, groin and shoulder protection is already too heavy at 24.1 pounds. A pair of the ceramic side plates --- costing $900 --- will add seven more pounds. On top of that, Soldiers typically carry up to 50 additional pounds of gear into combat.

Because of the extra weight and heat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines, like the Army, are leaving it up to field commanders to determine whether their troops must wear the plates.

Patterson's commander, Maj. Eric Young, said he will require them for his troops. Young said he wouldn't want a Marine's death weighing on his conscience.

"It's on the commander and they should make their Marines wear this gear," said Young, 33, of Pittsburgh, who commanded a military police company in western Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

Young has good reason to be cautious. Last year, an Armed Forces Institute of Pathology study of a random sample of 93 Marine deaths in Iraq found that 80 percent could have been prevented with more protection "on the chest, back, sides and shoulder areas." Of the deaths, 60 percent were caused by gunshots.

The study also concluded: "As many as 42 percent 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 percent might have benefited from protection along the mid-axillary line of the lateral chest. Another 15 percent died from impacts through the unprotected shoulder and upper arm." The Marines started developing the side plates in June to protect the vulnerable areas identified in the study.

"They were just getting smarter," Capt. Jeff Landis, a Marine spokesman, said about the insurgents turned sharpshooters.

Army officials said the Marine study had nothing to do with their plan to issue the side plates. Instead, they said they are responding to pleas from commanders in the field who want more protection for military truck drivers and others in the line of fire. Meanwhile, they are on the hunt for lighter, stronger body armor.

"We will test anything that anybody has, but so far we haven't found anything better than what the Army has," said Col. Thomas Spoehr, who is in charge of fielding Army equipment. "The scientists just don't see anything coming around the corner and we keep pushing them."

Body armor has improved dramatically since World War I, when Medieval armor-like breast plates and helmets were tested. The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning has a set of this heavy, awkward-looking armor on display. The mannequin wearing the armor is complete with metal "splinter goggles" and shin guards.

In a back storage room, tucked away in special dust-free closets, the museum stores U.S. body armor vests from World War II to Vietnam. Frank Hanner, the museum's director, recently took them out of a gray box, placed them on the floor and sized them up.

"They were constantly trying to come up with something better," Hanner, 56, said as he eyed the green vests.

Just outside the storage room are numerous weapons, from knives to tanks. Troops can keep piling on body armor to protect against those weapons, Hanner said, but, "there is only so much a human being can carry. And mobility can be the difference between life and death."

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