FORT STEWART, Ga. -- As members of the female engagement team with 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division, deploy soon, they will be sporting a new piece of gear that no other soldier in Afghanistan currently has: brand new armored vests tailored to the female body.
The push to create these new vests began in 2009 when the 101st Airborne Division reported issues female Soldiers were having with the fit and maneuverability of the recently fielded Generation II IOTVs.
"When I was with the 101st in Afghanistan, I raised the issue there that we had female Soldiers going outside the wire on a routine basis and their equipment was just too large for them to operate and correctly pocket their weapon in," said Master Sgt. Jeff Fenlason. "Because the problems were directly affecting the ability of these women to operate efficiently in combat, the Army began looking for ways to improve the vests."
On Nov. 28, the 1st ABCT FET gathered in a small room with the lead product engineer of the Generation III Female Improved Outer Tactical Vests and officially became the second group in the Army to ever receive the new equipment.
Making the changes to these vests marks a culture change in the Army which hasn't always been the easiest to overcome.
"We, as a military, have to truly accept that our female Soldiers are combatants, they are in harm's way and this battlefield does not have a frontline," said Master Sgt. Fenlason. "As we have recognized that tactically, we are now getting caught up equipment-wise and in training."
During the initial push for a better vest, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center initiated multiple surveys and found that about 85 percent of women in the Army were wearing a vest one size too large, and about 52 percent were wearing a vest about two sizes too large.
"Over the course of a couple years NSRDEC worked through a couple design changes, and what we put the 1st ABCT FET team in is the result of all that work," explained Master Sgt. Fenlason, who is now operating as a plans noncommissioned officer for 1st ABCT.
"These vests are absolutely amazing," said Cpt. Orielle Buentello, the FET officer in charge after trying on her vest for the first time. "The most exciting part is by far the fact that it really just fits us. I feel like I have complete mobility and function."
The new gear is designed to curve with the female anatomy, and the parts come in multiple sizes to custom fit to each woman, unlike the one-size-fits-all Gen II model.
"I can actually move my arms now," remarked Private 1st Class Mary Kidd, a medic with the FET. "It covers the places that it is supposed to cover, and now that it fits the whole vest feels a lot lighter."
But mobility is not the only improvement these vests offer.
"The vest is vastly going to improve my ability to defend myself with a weapon," Cpt. Buentello explained. "The old vests were too wide on my shoulders and high around my neck. Now, I feel like I have an extra two inches of reach through my arms and I will be able to get a proper sight alignment, making it easier to hit my target."
This team of eight women will be the final significant test before the vests become more widely available, said Deana Archambault, the Gen III Female IOTV product engineer. The target is to release 3,000 vests by the summer of 2013.