The U.S. Army will issue reinforced flak jackets to all soldiers serving in Iraq by the end of the month, following complaints lodged by a GW Law School professor.
After being informed by a law student and Army reservist serving in Iraq that soldiers were being given Vietnam-era body armor, professor Jonathan Turley wrote articles in major newspapers last year urging the Pentagon to distribute new flak jackets.
Law student Rich Murphy, a military police officer at the Baghdad Central Correctional Facility, informed Turley in September that his unit was given armor designed to protect soldiers from shrapnel, instead of Interceptor Kevlar vests, flak jackets that defend against weapons such as AK-47s.
Murphy’s parents, who said their son needed a bulletproof vest, bought him ceramic plates to protect him from high-powered weapons a month and a half before the Army issued similar protections to his entire unit.
“I thought the issue was too important for me to be silent,” Murphy wrote last month in an e-mail, referring to his decision to tell Turley. “Why should I be protected while other troops are out there naked? Soldiers take care of each other; that’s what I was doing.”
Murphy’s mother, Suzanne Werfelman, said she was outraged that all soldiers serving in Iraq were not given the latest armor at the war’s outset.
“The people in charge must think we have some people who are dispensable,” she said.
Concerned about U.S. troops’ safety, Turley spoke with some of their families, who said they were individually purchasing body armor.
He said manufacturers and retailers said they received many requests from families for vests and that there were long waiting lists.
Turley wrote opinion pieces in The Los Angeles Times, The Hill (Washington) and USA Today last year to raise awareness about the issue.
Pentagon officials initially told him that since the Interceptor vests were considered “non-priority” items, the military planned to exchange the old flak jackets for new ones over the next 10 years.
“We have known for over 10 years that Interceptor vests represent a quantum leap in protection,” Turley said. “What is particularly baffling is … the low priority didn’t change while we debated a second Iraqi war.”
However, Army spokesman Major Gary Tallman said the Interceptor vests were “always considered high priority items and the units that were supposed to have them had them.”
When the Army originally entered Iraq in March, there was a “plan for dismounted combat troops, infantrymen and cavalry” that provided Interceptor body armor for those involved in heavy combat and who were most at risk, Tallman said.
As troops started to occupy major Iraqi cities, the requirement for body armor increased as “combat service support started coming under attack,” said a Defense official who requested anonymity. In July, months before Turley launched his campaign, the Interceptor body armor was made a standard for everyone in Iraq, the official said.
Tallman said public outcry, along with a Congressional hearing in November, made the distribution of new body armor even more of a priority. The Army stepped up production of the vests last year to ensure that all soldiers would have them by the end of January.
About 80,000 more sets of Kevlar vests and ceramic plates would be needed to outfit all of the troops, Tallman said.
“The Army had to work very hard to meet that requirement,” he said. The number of firms producing the vests increased from two to eight, and the number of vests shipped out each month increased to 25,000.
Tallman said he was unsure how many vests were being produced before but that current production levels are at a “maximum.”
In December, the Pentagon confirmed that at least 40,000 of the 130,000 troops in Iraq still did not have Interceptor body armor, Tallman said.
Turley said there are still many shortages of other important pieces of equipment in Iraq, such as armored Humvees and desert boots.
“I have one e-mail from a unit that has hung buckets of rocks around its Humvee to give some armored protection,” he said.
Murphy said troops would need to be better protected in an environment that has remained hostile even after the capture of Saddam Hussein.
“I hope this will get people thinking about troop safety,” said Murphy, who served as The Hatchet’s editor in chief as a GW undergraduate. “The media and Congress were fixated on ‘shock and awe’ and politics and neglected the safety of the average American G.I.”
“With the guerilla attacks,” he added, “everyone is on the ‘front lines’ in Iraq. So everyone needs body armor.”