Soldiers get chance to try out the newest Army gear

Spc. Dorian Thomas of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command wears an advanced combat helmet and an Improved Outer Tactical Vest at a military tech expo at Kaiserslautern, Germany. The helmet has built-in sensors to monitor blasts and impacts that could cause traumatic brain injury, and soldiers can instantly remove the vest by pulling the release handle at center.


By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 27, 2009

RHINE ORDNANCE BARRACKS, Germany — With a strong tug to the small lanyard, the body armor vest came off in two pieces, falling almost to the ground, with someone extending a hand to prevent the ceramic plates inside from hitting the floor.

"Those are way more comfortable," Spc. Dorian Thomas, 21, an intelligence analyst with the 21st Theater Sustainment Command, said of the U.S. Army’s Improved Outer Tactical Vest.

But it was the M320 grenade launcher that had Thomas most pumped.

Grenade launchers "used to attach to the M-4," Thomas said. "This one, you just pick up, drop a round in and fire it."

Soldiers got the chance to view and, in some cases, try out, the latest in Army gear and technology Monday at an exhibition presented by the Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier, the organization responsible for all equipment soldiers wear or carry.

The agency occasionally takes its show on the road to demonstrate the next generation of Army gear and to seek feedback from soldiers in the field, said Debi Dawson, Army PEO Soldier’s director of communications in Fort Belvoir, Va.

The exhibition will move from Kaiserslautern to two more sites in Germany, then onto Italy next month.

The new body armor vest is three pounds lighter than its predecessor and takes a majority of the weight off the shoulders, redistributing it along the hips, said Francis Hayden, Product Manager Soldier Survivability director of operations.

The quick-release feature was developed after the 82nd Airborne Division, while deployed to Afghanistan about two years ago, identified a concern about getting out of body armor quickly, Army officials said. "Specifically going into water hazards," noted Sgt. Maj. Tom Coleman, Army PEO Soldier’s program executive.

Feedback from soldiers in the field often directs development of products and, in some cases, funding. For instance, money for the Army’s Land Warrior System had all but dried up, until soldiers from the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment deployed with it to Iraq for 14 months in 2007 and 2008.

"This is where the dismounted infantry fight is going," said Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Dodge, a 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment squad leader, who presented information on the Land Warrior at the expo. "I would not want to fight without it again."

The system is a wearable computer that provides soldiers a digital layout of the battlefield, helping them navigate through unfamiliar territory.

"It answers the questions — ‘Where I am, where do I need to go, where are my people?’ " Dodge said.

Coleman said senior Army leaders are discussing whether to equip a light infantry, battalion or brigade with the Land Warrior in Afghanistan.

Another piece of equipment that has yet to debut is the XM25 25 mm Counter Defilade Target Engagement System. Still being tested, the 12-pound airburst gun is designed to take out targets outside the direct line of fire, such as behind a window or below a wall.

Francis Hayden, right, director of operations for Product Manager Soldier Survivability, straps an Improved Outer Tactical Vest on Spc. Dorian Thomas at a military tech expo in Kaiserslautern, Germany on Monday. Soldiers can instantly remove the vest in emergency situations by pulling the release handle at its center.

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