The Interceptor System, a personal body armor system, is comprised of the Outer Tactical Vest and the Small Arms Protective Inserts. The OTV was designed for use with SAPI plates and replaces the Personnel Armor System, Ground Troop Flak vest, more commonly known as the flak vest.
More than 5,000 units of body armor issued last year to Marines deploying to Operation Iraqi Freedom were indeed substandard — but were combat-worthy enough to save lives on the battlefield, according to Marine Corps statements issued in the past week.
While acknowledging that more than 5,000 units of body armor issued to Marines headed for Iraq last year yielded “lower than contracted test results,” the vests protected Marines on the battlefield and constituted a “significant improvement” over previous generations of protective armor, the statements from Marine Corps Systems Command asserted.
Not one Camp Pendleton-based Marine or sailor deployed to the war on terrorism last year without sufficient body armor, a I Marine Expeditionary Force supply officer said Tuesday.
Lt. Col. David C. Blasko, a supply operations officer with I MEF, echoed Marine Corps Systems Command officials in response to a Marine Corps Times article reporting that some troops deployed to Iraq with substandard body armor.
After a recent precautionary recall of 5,277 sets of body armor, I MEF will inventory outer tactical vests issued to Marines and sailors who deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom last year.
“Initially, we outfitted about 26,000 personnel for OIF (with body armor), which constitutes 52,000 SAPI plates. The MEF had about 17,000 SAPI plates from (the previous deployment to Iraq), when we started preparing for (last year’s deployment),” Blasko said.
The outer tactical vest is the base component of the Interceptor Body Armor System that also includes Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI) that protect against direct fire from assault rifles, and the Armor Protection Enhancement System (APES), which guards the neck, arms and groin.
The recall, initiated by the Quantico, Va.-based Marine Corps Systems Command, was a response to the Marine Corps Times article by Christian Lowe published Monday. It reported that the Corps knowingly issued substandard body armor to Marines and sailors deploying in support of the Global War on Terrorism. The article also cast doubt on whether the outer tactical vests can stop a 9mm round.
A May 9 statement from Marine Corps Systems Command “categorically maintains that these (outer tactical vests) are capable of defeating the 9mm threat for which they are designed.”
The statement also explained the voluntary recall:
“Because we knew this article was forthcoming and would sow seeds of doubt in the minds of Marines in active combat, we concluded the only way to rapidly remove these doubts was to recall the vests in question.”
The body armor “was urgently needed” and fielded when Marines were ordered back into Iraq in spring 2004, the statement said. The outer tactical vests replaced the outdated Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) flak jacket, according to the statement.
The vests were issued after testing to provide the “best available” protection as Marines rotated into harm’s way, the statement read.
“This system is the most revolutionary personal protection system fielded to warriors in the past several decades,” the statement asserted.
Marines should not return the body armor, which is still classified as “serviceable,” until replacements are available, according to an All-Marine administrative message released May 4.
According to the statement, “present combat operations preclude us from retesting at this time to prove to our Marines these vests are effective. Therefore, we initiated the recall.”
Of the approximately 19,000 vests the Marine Corps Times article addresses, 5,277 are subject to recall. Of the remaining 14,000 vests, 10,000 have never been accepted or fielded by the Marine Corps, according to the statement.
That leaves 4,000 vests, approximately 3,000 of which passed all quality and testing standards. The remaining 992 vests also passed all tests, but were withheld by a Marine Corps contracting officer because they were in the same production run as the recalled vests, according to the statement.
Despite the lab test failures, the armor in question proved vital in the biggest test of all — combat — officials said.
Just days before last November’s offensive, Cpl. Joshua Miles, a squad leader with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, was hit by fragments from a mortar round during a security patrol on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq. Fragments from the mortar hit his flak jacket and Kevlar helmet, and went through the left arm sleeve of his uniform.
“It (body armor) is a great piece of gear. Marines have to make sure they are wearing the gear,” Miles said.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom casualty data gathered from the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner and the Navy/Marine Corps Combat Trauma Registry proves that the outer tactical vest … is highly effective in reducing the number of lethal and nonlethal wounds to the chest and abdomen,” the statement said.
For example, despite the increased number of casualties received by the 1st Force Service Support Group’s Surgical/Shock Trauma Platoon during the height of Fallujah operations last November, most were saved, due in large part to body armor issued and worn by Marines, said Navy Lt. Charles L. Cather, one of the platoon’s critical care nurses.
“If they weren’t wearing their flak (vest) and Kevlar (helmet), they’d have all this damaged,” said Cather, pointing to his head and chest.
The Marine Corps has issued more than 181,000 outer tactical vests to Marines in operating forces. The recalled outer tactical vests represent less than 3 percent of the total number fielded.
“The Marine Corps’ first concern is the safety and physical protection of our individual Marines,” the statement read.
Although known to do “more with less,” the Corps wants to assure U.S. taxpayers that their sons and daughters are not sent into harm’s way without sufficient gear, the statement read.
“We would expect the concerned mothers and fathers of America to want their sons and daughters to have the best possible protection available when they deployed and entered into combat,” the statement read. “Consequently, we don’t believe that they would have wanted their Marines to deploy to Iraq with the obsolete PASGT vest while we wait for a 100 percent solution when a 99.9 percent solution was at hand.”