Care-package contents: body armor

Published Oct. 4, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

Suzanne Werfelman is a mother and a teacher who has been shopping for individual body armor. This is not in response to threats from her elementary-class students in Sciota, Pa.; it's a desperate attempt to protect her son in Iraq.

Like many other U.S. service members in Iraq, her son was given a Vietnam-era flak jacket that cannot stop the type of weapons used today. It appears that parents across the country are now purchasers of body armor because of the failure of the military to supply soldiers with modern vests.

Werfelman's son, Army Spc. Richard Murphy, is a military policeman in Iraq. He was also one of my law students last year before being sent off for a 20-month stint. Upon their arrival, members of Murphy's unit were shocked to learn that they would be given the old Vietnam War-era vests rather than the modern Interceptor vest. (They were also given unarmored Humvees, which are vulnerable to even small-arms fire.) Military officials admit that the standard flak jacket could not reliably stop a bullet, including AK-47 ammunition, used in Iraq and the most common ammunition in the world.

Developed in the late 1990s, the Interceptor vest is made of layered sheets of Kevlar with pockets in front and back for ceramic plates to protect vital organs. These vests _ one-third lighter than the old ones _ have stopped machine-gun bullets, shrapnel and other ordnance.

They can mean the difference between living and dying, which was made all too clear to Sgt. Zachariah Byrd, a soldier with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who was shot four times with AK-47 bullets (twice in the chest and twice in his arms) when his unit was ambushed. The vest protected his chest and he survived. Byrd had been issued a standard flak jacket and, if he had been wearing it during the attack, he'd probably be dead. However, at the beginning of the patrol, his buddy who was driving that night gave his Interceptor vest to Byrd _ a passing kindness that saved Byrd's life.

Others don't have the Interceptor option _ including some of the soldiers in Murphy's unit who are still wearing flak jackets. Congress has received reports of soldiers killed while wearing the old flak jackets. One from a mother related how three soldiers in her son's unit were killed while wearing the outmoded vests. The unit reportedly had only 30 modern vests for 120 men. Army Staff Sgt. Dave Harris wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes that related how his friend, Mike Quinn, was killed in Fallujah. Quinn's unit didn't have enough vests, so he gave his to a young soldier. The decision saved the young soldier's life, but resulted in Quinn's death when he was shot.

The greatest shortfall in vests and plates appear to be National Guard and Reserve units, although full-time soldiers such as Byrd also have reported shortages. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed last week that it would be December before there were enough plates for all of our people in Iraq.

Murphy's reserve unit, which initially had no modern jackets, was eventually given some Interceptor vests weeks after they arrived in Iraq, but even then the new vests were missing the essential ceramic plates. That is when Werfelman went out and bought some plates for $650 _ more than her weekly salary _ and sent them to her son so he'd have basic protection. Workers at one armor company she called said that they had been deluged with calls from parents trying to buy vests and plates for their sons and daughters overseas.

Of course, many soldiers do not have even empty Interceptors. When they have received plates from home, they have reportedly used duct tape to attach them to the backs of their flak jackets.

This is a dangerous practice, according to William "Butch" Hancock, who recently retired from the Army after 30 years and currently consults for Point Blank, a body armor manufacturer. He says that some of these plates are designed for front pockets and will not work in such circumstances.

In speeches, President Bush has attributed the record federal budget deficit, in part, to his insistence that U.S. soldiers have the resources they need: "My attitude is, any time we put one of our soldiers in harm's way, we're going to spend whatever is necessary to make sure they have the best training, the best support and the best possible equipment." When Bush later taunted gunmen in Iraq to "bring it on," many GIs must have nervously tugged at their obsolete flak jackets.

For many GIs, Iraq appears to be a strictly BYOB war _ Bring Your Own Bulletproofs.

The shortages come down to money and priorities. In 1998, Interceptors were available and issued to armies around the world. However, the U.S. military treats the replacement of body armor as any other "general-issue item." Thus, five years ago the military brass decided to implement a one-for-one exchange of new-for-old vests over a 10-year period. The military recently moved to increase production. The belated priority given to replacing the vests is particularly shocking considering their performance in Afghanistan, where they are credited with saving the lives of 29 soldiers. This is why American mothers are mailing armored plates rather than the traditional baked goods.

It is unclear how we got into this predicament, but it is worthy of a congressional investigation _ particularly when it comes to the failure to equip all military units with the modern vests before the Iraq war. After all, the military brass appears to be spending in other areas.

For example, the Air Force announced that it had cut a deal with Boeing to lease airplane tankers for billions more than it would cost to buy them outright. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Air Force will waste almost $6-billion by leasing the planes rather than buying them. Congress is looking into the deal. By comparison, outfitting all of the 150,000 soldiers in Iraq with Interceptor vest plates would cost less than $97-million at retail prices. Because many have already been outfitted, the actual cost would be a small fraction of this amount. Congress should insist that body armor be designated a "sensitive item" and that every soldier be given an Interceptor with plates without delay.

One approach might guarantee results. Any member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who does not secure such vests for his service should be required to sit at an outdoor cafe in Tikrit and drink a cup of tea while wearing an old flak jacket. That might focus the general staff on the problem more concretely.

Once the government makes sure all our soldiers receive vests, only one thing would remain: Someone should send Suzanne Werfelman $650 and an apology.

+ Jonathan Turley is a professor at George Washington Law School. +

Special to the Los Angeles Times