WASHINGTON — More than 230,000 side-panel inserts for soldiers’ interceptor body armor and 28,000 inserts for Marines’ vests will be made available to troops overseas by the end of the year, military officials said Wednesday.

Defense leaders insisted the move is not a reaction to questions about military deaths in Iraq due to inadequate armor, but instead is part of their ongoing efforts to upgrade troops’ equipment.

“Our troops are wearing the best body armor available, we think, in the whole world today,” said Maj. Gen. William Catto, commanding general of the Marine Corps Systems Command. “And as we have the opportunity to upgrade, we’re doing that.”

Last weekend The New York Times reported that a Pentagon study, finished last summer, showed that dozens of fatal bullet and shrapnel wounds might have been prevented with better armor protection around the shoulder or the sides.

In 93 Marine fatalities due to torso injuries analyzed in the study, 74 deaths were caused by projectiles that struck the servicemembers at exposed areas such as the shoulders and the uncovered sides of the armor. According to the report, 31 of the wounds were so close to the protective inserts that slightly enlarging the plates “would have had the potential to alter the fatal outcome.”

Cmdr. Craig Mallak of the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, which conducted the study, said Wednesday that the report was not kept secret but was not made public because it was designed only for research purposes. He also said the findings were simply medical facts, not recommendations or blame for the wounds.

The Marines have been fielding the new side inserts since last June, with about 9,000 in Iraq already. Catto said he expects the 28,000 additional plates to arrive by April, to be used at commander’s discretion.

Meanwhile, Army officials said they’ll provide the 230,000 new side and shoulder inserts for their interceptor armor by the end of the year, but could not provide a more definite time frame.

Both services emphasized that the extra armor will be used only in certain situations, and not as a mandatory addition for all troops, because of the weight and bulkiness of the panels.

“There has to be a balance between what a soldier can wear and what a soldier can do with it on,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, deputy for Army Acquisition and Systems Management. “We have to make sure it’s not too heavy, too hot for them to do their jobs.”

Officials said troops can typically carry between 85 and 125 pounds of armor and equipment already, without the additional weight of side or shoulder panels.

Defense Department officials met Wednesday with the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss the study and work being done to improve the body armor situation.

Committee chairman Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said after the meeting that he is satisfied military leaders focused on protecting troops headed into combat.

“Each situation is different and each operation is different,” he said. “But everything that can be done for the troops is being done.”

But committee member Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said the latest controversy shows the Pentagon has failed to adequately equip troops before deployment.

He announced plans for legislation granting $1,100 for each servicemember to buy body armor until defense officials can provide “the most complete personal body armor protection” for all troops.

Warner said he opposed the idea, saying he sees no gap in funding for armor development and no delay in troops receiving the best available gear.

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