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Marine Veteran Out to Make World's Strongest Body Armor

In this Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 photo, Blake Waldrop, CEO of RMA Armament in Centerville, Iowa, holds a body armor plate created by RMA after its been fired at. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP )
In this Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 photo, Blake Waldrop, CEO of RMA Armament in Centerville, Iowa, holds a body armor plate created by RMA after its been fired at. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP )

CENTERVILLE, Iowa — At Blake Waldrop's south Iowa factory, quality control involves ear protection, safety glasses and a high-powered rifle.

For every 100 products made by his company, RMA Armament, Waldrop sets aside one to take to his indoor shooting range and pump full of lead.

The Des Moines Register reports Waldrop is working to build a superior version of body armor that will save the lives of law enforcement officers and soldiers. And if he needs to shoot up a few dozen samples to make sure it can do the job, so be it.

"It's meant to save people's lives," said Waldrop, who became a manufacturer after careers in the U.S. Marines and local policing. "If you eat bad cereal, you might be sick for a day or two. But if this is bad, somebody's going to die."

Waldrop's interest stems from personal experience: A comrade in his company died wearing Marine-issued body armor during a 2005 IED attack in Iraq.

Waldrop doesn't know whether better body armor would have saved his friend, but he's certain he would have had a better chance wearing RMA's new armor. In fact, his company's website boasts it sells the "world's best body armor."

"That's factual," Waldrop said. "We've got the data to back it up."

One of his designs has been tested to withstand six rounds of armor-piercing rifle ammunition — a feat he says is unmatched by competitors. RMA sells various armor models to police forces across the country, with plans for future expansion into the military market. Worn around the center chest, each piece of armor weighs 3 to 7 pounds.

In the wake of high-profile shootings of law enforcement officers in Iowa and across the country, Waldrop says demand for hard armor has skyrocketed.

Now, departments that once used body armor solely for special tactical units such as SWAT teams are considering it for patrol officers.

"The need spiked through the roof, as far as individual officers needing hard armor and departments recognizing, 'Hey, we actually need to have an active budget for this,'" he said. "So we've seen a lot of departments putting budgets aside."

After serving in the Marines for five years, Waldrop returned to his native Michigan and worked for a trucking company. But the 2008 shakeup that decimated the American auto market left him laid off.

Waldrop entered the police academy and served as an officer in Wyoming and Dysart, Iowa.

He launched his armor business in his garage in 2011, seeking expert help to rethink the materials, adhesives and ceramics that go into the shielding worn around the chest.

The business, which started making products at the Rock Island Arsenal in the Quad Cities and then through a third-party manufacturer in northern Iowa, was set to go to Texas because of Waldrop's friendship with Gov. Rick Perry.

But a chance encounter with state and local officials at Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's annual hunt changed his mind. He found out that the 20,000-square-foot former armory building in Centerville was empty and available.

Now, RMA leases that building from the city, and has plans to buy it outright.

In February 2016, the Iowa Economic Development Authority awarded RMA a $34,000 forgivable loan and $34,550 in tax credits. The plant also received financial incentives from Centerville and Appanoose County.

Waldrop, who owns 60 percent of RMA, said the business was financed with his personal savings and a $1 million investment from a friend.

He wants eventually to sell armor plates to the U.S. military, which he says is still using basically the same style of body armor that his Marine comrade was outfitted with in 2005.

But for now, he's focused on increasing production through sales to law enforcement agencies. A wall in the plant displays badges from customers ranging from Waterloo and Ames in Iowa to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Baltimore Police Department.

His list price for body armor plates ranges from $140 to $330 each, but Waldrop said he works with cash-strapped police departments on more affordable prices.

"We didn't get into this business to make millions of dollars," he said. "We got into this business to protect other people's lives."

Even so, RMA is making millions.

From July to December 2016, the company racked up more than $2 million in sales, Waldrop said. On average, RMA's 20 employees now pump out 1,000 to 1,200 pieces of body armor per week.

The business reached profitability during the final quarter of 2016.

RMA has filed for patent protection, which would keep competitors from creating a similar product for at least 20 years.

Waldrop said RMA's unique ceramic grid differentiates it from competitors. Just as engineers might design a piece of concrete to crack in a certain way, so too has RMA designed its ceramic to crack just the right way to absorb a bullet's impact.

When a bullet is shot at the plate, the ceramic breaks the round, instantly disintegrating the slug. A polyethylene backing absorbs the kinetic energy of the fired shot.

"I always tell people I didn't invent armor any more than Steve Jobs invented the computer," Waldrop said. "I just found a better way to do it, just like he did."

The U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice, which regulates the production of body armor, does not rank or classify various products. But two of RMA's models are shown as meeting federal standards on the institute's online database (Waldrop expects more models to be certified soon).

While he regularly takes aim at his plates at the shooting range, they so far haven't come under fire on the job. But if an officer ever is shot, RMA promises a replacement plate for free.

Waldrop often offers live-fire demonstrations in the plant's shooting range, offering cops cash for armor plates in their inventory and then having them shoot at it. Then, they shoot at his plates.

"Talk is pretty cheap. Anybody can throw together some PowerPoint slides and polish up a sales pitch," he said. "But for me, I'd rather do less talk and more action."

With an available $650 stipend every five years, every Des Moines police officer can choose to purchase a soft bullet-proof vest to protect against handgun fire. But those vests do not protect against rifle fire the same way hard armor can, Des Moines Police spokesman Sgt. Paul Parizek said.

"Rifle rounds will cut through them like a knife through butter," Parizek said. "So that's definitely a consideration because we've seen more and more rifle assaults on police officers, including our recent experience here in Des Moines."

In November, two metro-area police officers were shot and killed in what police described as "ambush style" attacks. But even before then, Parizek said department officials were discussing whether patrol officers ought to be issued heavier armor.

Currently, only the 40 or so members of the special response SWAT team are issued armor plates.

"It's a trending threat to us and obviously a deadly threat to us," Parizek said. "So there are things we have to consider now that we didn't consider 10 years ago. It's not that it wasn't an option 10 years ago, but people weren't ambushing cops."

Still, he said it's unlikely the everyday police officer would wear the heavy hard armor regularly. Instead, they more likely would have it on hand in case a threatening situation arises.

"We can't interact well with the community if we look like an occupying army, if we are armored up and helmeted up," Parizek said. "It's just not accessible, and it's not functional for the duties we perform."

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