Lawmakers want tougher armor for Iraq troops
October 31, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — As the $87 billion defense supplemental requests heads into the home stretch on Capitol Hill, lawmakers in the House continued to express concerns that deployed servicemembers don’t have the necessary supplies to do their jobs.
On Wednesday, 33 House members, led by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., sent House appropriators a letter that emphasized the need to supply all deployed troops with the Defense Department’s new Interceptor flak vests, as well as provide adequate immunizations, drinking water and even sundries such as toothpaste.
“It is an outrage that servicemembers, deployed in the Global War on Terrorism, do not receive adequate personal hygiene products and drinking water,” the letter said. “Servicemembers have told us they lack personal items like razors, shaving cream, toothpaste, etc. Congress needs to provide these items to America’s soldiers and not rely on families to continually send their loved ones these necessities.”
Brown sent the letter, which includes the signatures of 32 other representatives, all Democrats, “to emphasize the importance of supplying the troops with all they need,” Dahlia Melendrez, a veteran’s affairs staff member for Brown, said in a Thursday interview.
Melendrez said that the letter was based on “lots of newspaper articles” about reported shortages and letters that Brown has received from her constituents.
Many members of Congress have expressed anger over Defense Department estimates that more than 40,000 troops, most notably Reserve and National Guard combat support units, were not outfitted with the new “Interceptor” body armor before deploying to Iraq.
Instead, the troops are wearing Vietnam-era “flak jackets,” designed to stop fragmentation but not larger caliber rifle rounds, or Kevlar vests without the ceramic inserts that prevent high-caliber ammunition from penetrating.
Some soldiers told members of the House Appropriations Committee that they were spending as much as $650 out of pocket to buy their own Interceptor Body Armor vests and protective insert plates.
DOD officials have said that the manufacturer of the new vests is producing the armor as rapidly as possible, and that the new vests are priority shipped to the Middle East.
But members of Congress and their staffs are not satisfied with that explanation.
“The concern is that [deployed troops] should have [Interceptor vests] now,” Dahlia Melendrez, a veteran’s affairs staff member for Brown, said in a Thursday interview. If there are production issues preventing that, “these obstacles really need to be overcome. Whatever it takes to get the vests there should be done, now.”
House appropriators sent a blistering rebuke concerning the reported vest shortage to Pentagon officials in their Oct. 9 report concerning the supplemental. The members also added about $50 million to the Bush administration’s supplemental request, specifically to outfit every servicemember in Iraq with the new vests.
As for Brown’s assertion that drinking water is in short supply in Iraq, the Defense Department has repeatedly asserted that while bottled water, which is expensive to transport, may be rationed in Iraq, there has never been a shortage of potable, purified water for troops.
Melendrez said she was not aware of that explanation, but noted that two of her family members are deployed to Iraq have repeatedly asked for supplies of powdered drink mix. Neither family member has complained of lacking access to water, Melendrez said.
Passage of the supplemental request has been slowed by disagreements in Congress over the remaining $20 billion in the request, which is supposed to be used for civilian reconstruction and revitalization projects in Iraq.
House and Senate members broke a crucial logjam in passing the supplemental on Wednesday, when negotiators for each side agreed to provide more than $18 billion in aid to Iraq as grants, rather than loans.
The House was expected to approve the supplemental as early as Thursday evening, with a Senate vote expected to follow either Friday or early next week.