Body-Armor Gaps Are Shown to Endanger Troops

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006

The Marine Corps and Army are working to upgrade body armor to prevent fatalities caused by torso wounds from gunshots and explosions, after classified Pentagon forensic studies highlighted how gaps in current armor are leaving troops vulnerable.

A recent military study of a random sample of scores of Marine deaths from torso wounds between the start of the Iraq war in March 2003 and mid-2005 found that more protection on the chest, back, sides and shoulder areas could have prevented up to 80 percent of the fatalities. It was the first time military forensic experts have reported on torso injuries to the Pentagon, according to a statement from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington.

U.S. troops in Iraq often complain that insurgents -- especially snipers -- have demonstrated they know how to exploit the gaps in the current armor. For example, enemy snipers have killed U.S. forces with single shots to the neck or upper torso.

The Pentagon has faced a steady stream of criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress who assert that the military has not moved quickly enough to provide the most advanced armor to U.S. troops -- from more heavily armored Humvees and trucks to bulletproof vests.

But Army and Marine Corps officials say developing, producing and fielding better armor is a constant effort as the military faces ever-changing and more lethal insurgent tactics in Iraq. An important consideration, they say, is the trade-off between heavier armor and troops' ability to move quickly and return fire.

"As we find the battlefield has changed, we constantly are trying to enhance the survivability and mobility of the American soldier," said Army spokesman Paul Boyce. "Throughout the fielding of body armor to our soldiers, improvements have been made and continue to be made." He cited five different upgrades to protective vests, as well as enhanced ceramic plates.

The Army avoids detailing the ballistic capabilities of body armor so as not to give an advantage to enemy forces, he said. "What we don't do is talk about what we're going to do next to change the body armor or the composites in it."

Currently U.S. soldiers and Marines use the Interceptor Body Armor System, issued beginning in 1999 and widely fielded since the Iraq war as an upgrade to an earlier bulletproof vest. So far, the Army has fielded more than 500,000 sets.

The medical examiner study analyzed a random sample of 93 Marine deaths from torso wounds and found that 60 percent of the fatalities were caused by gunshots. "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."

Findings from the study, conducted by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner for the Marine Corps, were published earlier this week on the Web site of Soldiers for the Truth, an advocacy group for U.S. troops, and two versions of the study were confirmed by the medical examiner. An article on the study appeared Friday evening on the New York Times Web site.

The medical examiner received $107,000 in funding from the Marine Corps in December 2004 to conduct the study, which marks "the first time information on torso injuries was disseminated" to the Defense Department, said a statement from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The report evaluating body armor was based on full autopsies, which are conducted on all U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of the cause, said Christopher Kelly, public affairs director for the institute. "Information regarding the effectiveness of body armor has been shared with those who design and field personal protective gear," he said.

The Army and Marine Corps have recalled thousands of protective vests in recent months because they failed some ballistic requirements when they were manufactured, although an Army spokesman described the vests' departure from required standards as extremely small and said many are no longer in use.

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