Mideast edition, Thursday, June 7, 2007

The debate over whether U.S. troops have the best body armor available came to Congress on Wednesday, as Defense officials and the maker of Dragon Skin body armor traded accusations.

NBC reported last month that the commercially available Dragon Skin performed better during independent ballistic tests than the Interceptor Body Armor that soldiers are issued.

The Army fired back, saying Dragon Skin failed numerous ballistic tests last year, and that its mesh of ceramic plates falls apart after being exposed to extreme heat and cold.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Murray Neal, head of Pinnacle Armor, disputed the results of last year’s tests and accused the Army of putting out misinformation.

Neal acknowledged that one bullet went clear through a Dragon Skin vest during last year’s tests, but he said that shot needed to be re-tested, and the re-test never happened.

He also said other shots that the Army says penetrated Dragon Skin vests did not go all the way through the vests, and another shot that went through a Dragon Skin vest was unfair because it hit in an area of the vest that had no mesh of ceramic plates due to a flaw in that particular vest, which has since been corrected.

Philip E. Coyle III, who helped oversee the NBC ballistic tests, acknowledged that the tests did not go as far as those run by the Army.

The NBC tests were conducted at room temperature and did not involve more expensive tests run by the Army, Coyle said.

“I think it was really a matter of time and resources,” he said.

Army and Air Force officials also said that Pinnacle falsely claimed in 2006 that Dragon Skin had been certified to a certain level of ballistic protection by the National Institute of Justice, which tests body armor for law enforcement.

Army Lt. Gen. N. Ross Thompson III testified that Dragon Skin had failed other ballistic tests in addition to those run by the Army last year.

Thompson, of the Army Acquisition Corps, said the NBC story was “just plain not true.”

Thompson praised the body armor soldiers are issued, saying it saved the life of one soldier who attended Wednesday’s hearing.

After a recent story on the controversy, Stars and Stripes received e-mails from three people who said they felt Dragon Skin was superior to the body armor the Army issues. Two of those people were soldiers. All requested anonymity.

One soldier said the Army-issue body armor is heavy, uncomfortable and bulky, making it hard to get in and out of armored vehicles.

“My Dragon Skin is way more comfortable than any hard plate, and when you are doing 15-plus-hour missions like we are, comfort is very important … my shoulders have not hurt at all so far,” the soldier said.

The soldier said two other members of his unit have bought Dragon Skin vests.

Another soldier said he bought Dragon Skin before coming to Iraq and has not had any problems with it during the nine months he has been in country.

He also said his Dragon Skin provides better protection against AK-47 rounds than Army-issue body armor.

“I’ve been around the military for a long time, and everyone knows contracts go to the lowest bidder without regard to quality,” he said.

Asked about the soldier’s comments, Thompson said the government looks to get the “best value that meets the requirement” with gear, and the best value is not always the best price.

Also Wednesday, Spc. Gregory T. Miller, of the 101st Airborne Division, said he is confident in the body armor issued to U.S. troops.

Miller, 28, of Peoria, Ill., credits his body armor with saving his life after he was hit by an armor-piercing round in December 2005 in Kirkuk.

“We trust our gear, sir,” Miller told one lawmaker.

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