Study: Limited armor costs lives


Published: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 11:29 p.m.
A secret Pentagon study has found that as many as 80 percent of the Marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to their upper body could have survived if they had had extra body armor. Such armor has been available since 2003, but until recently the Pentagon has largely declined to supply it to troops despite calls from the field for additional protection, according to military officials.
The ceramic plates in vests now worn by the majority of troops in Iraq cover only some of the chest and back. In at least 74 of the 93 fatal wounds that were analyzed in the Pentagon study of Marines from March 2003 through June 2005, bullets and shrapnel struck the Marines' shoulders, sides or areas of the torso where the plates do not reach.
Thirty-one of the deadly wounds struck the chest or back so close to the plates that simply enlarging the existing shields ''would have had the potential to alter the fatal outcome,'' according to the study, which was obtained by The New York Times.
For the first time, the study by the military's medical examiner shows the cost in lost lives from inadequate armor, even as the Pentagon continues to publicly defend its protection of the troops.
Officials have said they are shipping the best armor to Iraq as quickly as possible. At the same time, they have maintained that it is impossible to shield forces from the increasingly powerful improvised explosive devices used by insurgents. Yet the Pentagon's own study reveals the equally lethal threat of bullets.
The vulnerability of the military's body armor has been known since the start of the war, and is part of a series of problems that have surrounded the protection of American troops. Still, the Marine Corps did not begin buying additional plates to cover the sides of their troops until last September, when it ordered 28,800 sets, Marine officials acknowledge.
The Army, which has the largest force in Iraq, is still deciding what to purchase, according to Army procurement officials. They said the Army was deciding between various sizes of plates to give its 130,000 soldiers, adding that they hoped to issue contracts this month.
Additional forensic studies by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's unit indicate that about 340 American troops have died from torso wounds.
The Pentagon has been collecting the data on wounds since the beginning of the war in March 2003 in part to determine the effectiveness of body armor. The military's medical examiner, Dr. Craig T. Mallak, told a military panel in 2003 that the information ''screams to be published.'' But it would take nearly two years.
The Marine Corps said it asked for the data in August 2004; but it needed to pay the medical examiner $107,000 to have the data analyzed. Marine officials said financing and other delays had resulted in delaying the start of the study until December 2004. It finally began receiving the information by June 2005.
Body armor has gone through a succession of problems in Iraq. First, there were prolonged shortages of the plates that make the vests bulletproof. Last year, the Pentagon began replacing the plates with a stronger model that is more resistant to certain insurgent attacks.
Almost from the beginning, some soldiers asked for additional protection to stop bullets from slicing through their sides. In the fall of 2003, when troops began hanging their crotch protectors under their arms, the Army's Rapid Equipping Force shipped several hundred plates to protect their sides and shoulders. Individual soldiers and units continued to buy their own sets.
The Army's former acting secretary, Les Brownlee, said in a recent interview that he was shown numerous designs for expanded body armor back in 2003, and had instructed his staff to weigh their benefits against the perceived threat without losing sight of the main task: eliminating the shortages of plates for the chest and back.
Army procurement officials said that their efforts to purchase side ceramic plates had been encumbered by the Army's much larger force in Iraq compared with the Marines' and that they wanted to provide manufacturers with detailed specifications. Also, they said their plates would be made to resist the stronger insurgent attacks.
The Marines said they opted to take the older version of ceramic to speed delivery. As of early last month, officials said Marines in Iraq had received 2,200 of the more than 28,000 sets of plates that are being bought for about $260 each.
Marine officials said they had supplied troops with soft shoulder protection that can repel some shrapnel, but remained concerned that ceramic shoulder plates or larger chest and back plates would be too restrictive.
Similarly, they said they believed that the chest and back plates were as large as they could be without unduly limiting the movement of troops.
The Times obtained the three-page Pentagon report after a military advocacy group, Soldiers for the Truth, learned of its existence. The group posted an article about the report on its Web site earlier this week. The Times delayed publication of this article for more than a week until the Pentagon confirmed the authenticity of its report. Pentagon officials declined to discuss details of the wound data, saying it would aid the enemy.
''Our preliminary research suggests that 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,'' the study concludes. An additional 23 percent might have been saved with side plates that extend below the arms, while 15 percent more could have benefited from shoulder plates, the report says.
In all, 526 Marines have been killed in combat in Iraq. A total of 1,706 American troops have died in combat there.The findings and other research by military pathologists suggests that an analysis of all combat deaths in Iraq, including those of Army troops, would show that 300 or more lives might have been saved with improved body armor.
Military officials and defense contractors said the Pentagon's procurement troubles had stemmed in part from miscalculations that underestimated the strength of the insurgency, and from years of cost-cutting that left some armoring companies on the brink of collapse as they waited for new orders.

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