The bulletproof soldier has come of age. That’s just one of the Army and Marine research teams’ findings in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Battle Lab and a Marine Corps Systems Command Team fanned out across Iraqi battlefields gathering information from soldiers and Marines about the good, bad and ugly of the gear they carried into the fight.

The teams found that bulletproof vests worked and improvements to the new chemical suits were well received, but medical aid bags didn’t cut it in combat. Both the Army and Marine Corps published the findings in unclassified reports.

Interceptor Body Armor

The newest bulletproof — truly bulletproof — vest is heavy and bulky, but Marines and soldiers loved it. Called Interceptor Body Armor, the Outer Tactical Vest can stop a 9 mm bullet. With ceramic insert plates, called Small Arms Protective Insert, the vest was one of the issued items most loved by those in the line of fire.

“SAPI is God’s gift to the Marines Corps,” Capt. David Bardof, 2nd Tank Battalion, told the Marine team. The team reported that in five separate incidents, SAPI plates prevented death or serious injury.

In one instance, when Marine Sgt. Michael Simmons of the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion was shot, his arm was in front of his vest, according to a Marine Corps news release. The 7.62 mm round passed through his arm and smashed against the SAPI plate, which stopped the bullet cold. Doctors later told Simmons the bullet, had it not been stopped, would have hit his heart and likely killed him.

Army researchers found similar accounts. Soldiers in a tank unit, for instance, made fun of a colleague for wearing the vest in a tank that itself was heavily armored. The soldier recalled that he was firing at an enemy machine gun when something slammed into his chest, knocking him backward. He called out that he’d been hit, but no wound could be found.

“After the fight they found the entry hole … significant damage to the edge of the SAPI plate and a 7.62 round embedded in the protective liner,” the Army report stated.

That’s when the teasing stopped.

Soldiers and Marines both liked the vest so much that they scrambled to trade in old flak vests for new ones, often complaining when they weren’t issued the new one.

One Marine combat engineer battalion, for instance, was skipped when SAPI plates first were distributed; eventually, they received some — but too few — before crossing into Iraq.

“Leadership was faced with hard questions from their Marines (e.g., literally, questions such as ‘Why is (his) life more important than mine?’)” the report stated.

Some soldiers issued Spall vests — designed to stop secondary fragmentation — modified their vest or fitted SAPI plates inside them, the Army report stated.

Complaints about the outer tactical vests and SAPI plates centered on maneuverability. Helmets and vests interfered with each other, making it difficult to keep heads up in prone firing positions.

Marines also said a lighter version that was slightly wider in the front would be better.

Kevlar helmets

The bulletproof Kevlar helmet — officially, the Personnel Armor System Ground Troop Helmet — also was credited with saving lives. The Marine team got resoundingly positive feedback.

“During urban fighting in Iraq, a Marine corporal was struck in the front of his helmet by a 7.62 x 39 mm round,” the Marine report said. “The Kevlar PASGT Helmet absorbed the impact of the round with no injury to the Marine.”

Chemical suits

Soldiers praised the latest version of the chemical protective suit, called Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit.

“Unbelievable,” one brigade commander commented in the Army report. Although he dislikes wearing the protective gear, he said, “This one is OK.”

The Army report said soldiers felt the new suit was a “vast improvement over its predecessor.”

Complaints about the old suits were that most were woodland green, not desert tan, and that they weren’t flame retardant, forcing crewmen to wear NOMEX flame-resistant suits as well. Suspenders were faulted for being of poor quality and making field defecation difficult.

First aid

Navy corpsmen fielded a new item in their medical kits called QuikClot by Z-Medica, but they found that the chemical powder designed to stanch bleeding was ineffective, specifically on arterial bleeding, according to the Marine report.

A team of corpsmen tried using the powder on an Iraqi civilian shot near the brachial artery. The powder dried and flaked off. Direct pressure proved more effective. Another Iraqi shot in the back was given QuikClot, but pressure from the bleeding sprayed the chemical everywhere.

“QuikClot was everywhere but [on] the wound,” a surgeon noted.

The powder also proved ineffective in helping a Marine with a gunshot wound to the femoral artery. The chemical was pushed from the wound and a tourniquet applied, but the Marine still died.

Tourniquets provided to corpsmen in their kits also were rated useless, according to the report. Corpsmen resorted to using a stick with the green slings in the kit around pressure points.

Navy corpsmen also rated their medical Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment pack poorly. The packs allow for medics to “wear,” rather than carry, medical supplies for improved mission efficiency without compromising mobility or readiness. Some wanted the old “Unit 1” bags; others wanted a load-bearing vest with multiple pockets. Still others wanted something similar to the Army medics’ Black Hawk bag. That bag is similiar to a civilian emergency medical technician’s medical bag.

Army medics were dissatisfied with the way their bags mounted to packs, according to the Army report. In fact, the bag isn’t designed to be attached to the packs. Soldiers asked for a larger bag that is designed to attach to packs.

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