“I’ve told many family I’ve met with, ‘We’re doing everything we possibly can to protect your loved ones.’”
--George W. Bush, December 2004
Body armor is back in the news. Again. Imagine that. Like so many of the Bush administration's follies, failings and felonies, the body armor story is one that submerges for months or years but that, over time, consistently manages to break the surface.
In July of 2004, Christian Lowe of the Army Times reported that the Marine Corps had issued nearly 10,000 armor vests that government experts had urged the Corps to reject. Lowe wrote that in all, the Corps had accepted 19 "Interceptor" vests from Point Blank Body Armor Inc. that had failed government tests. The Marine Corps eventually recalled 5,000 of the issued vests, but only under pressure of imminent publication of an eight-month investigation on the story by the Marine Corps Times.
That the Point Blank armor was inferior or defective shouldn't have come as a surprise to government inspectors. In September 2005, Trevor Aaronson of Broward-Palm Beach New Times revealed that the New York Police Department had rejected 900 of 1,000 Point Blank vests as a result of tests conducted by the New York Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, tests that were conducted clear back in April of 2002.
An aside: In 2004, David H. Brooks, chairman of DHB Industries which owns Point Blank Inc., earned $70 million, plus $187 million in company stock sales. In 2005, the Southern States Police Benevolent Association (SSPBA) filed a class action lawsuit against Point Blank in April of 2005, claiming that Point Blank knew it was selling defective body armor.
In early 2006, DefenseWatch released a secret Marine Corps report that said 80 percent of the 401 Marines killed in Iraq between April 2004 and June 2005 might have been saved if the Point Blank Interceptor body armor they were wearing was more effective.
Exit the Dragon
By 2004, a newer generation of body armor was gaining the respect of military and law enforcement experts. Dragon Skin, produced by Pinnacle Armor Inc., was thought by many to be far superior to Point Blank's Interceptor vest, and soldiers and Marines bound for combat zones began to acquire their own Dragon Skin vests (in some instances, service members' families and friends contributed money to buy the newer style body armor).
In March 2006, the Army banned the use of privately bought armor. Col. Thomas Spoehr, director of materiel for the Army, said at the time that, "We're very concerned that people are spending their hard-earned money on something that doesn't provide the level of protection that the Army requires people to wear. So they're, frankly, wasting their money on substandard stuff."
The Army's ban specifically addressed Pinnacle's Dragon Skin, stating "the Army has been unable to determine the veracity" of claims that Dragon Skin was superior to the Interceptor armor.
Enter the Media
On May 18, 2007, the NBC News Investigative Unit broke a story that indicated the Army has not been quite been telling the truth. NBC quoted Brigadier General Mark Brown, who oversees the Army's body armor program, as saying, “The body armor that we issue to our soldiers today [the Point Blank Interceptor vest] is the best in the world. Bar none. It’s proven by live-fire testing, and it’s proven in combat.”
NBC also interviewed the man who designed the Interceptor over a decade ago, retired Marine Colonel Jim Magee. When asked what he considered to be the best body armor available today, Magee replied, "Dragon Skin is the best out there, hands down. It's better than the Interceptor. It is state of the art. In some cases, it’s two steps ahead of anything I’ve ever seen."
NBC also noted that Magee has no financial interest in Dragon Skin.
Brigadier General Brown disagreed with Magee's assessment, and told NBC's Lisa Myers that the Army conducted its own tests of Dragon Skin in 2006. He said that "Thirteen of 48 shots that were taken at Dragon Skin were penetrating, full penetrating shots," and that the Dragon Skin had "failed miserably." Those tests, Brown suggested, led the Army to issue a "safety of usage" message, warning soldiers and commanders that use of Dragon Skin could cause.
Funny thing, though. The tests Brown described were conducted in May 2006, months after the Army banned Dragon Skin in March of that year. When confronted by this fact by Myers, Brown responded, "Lisa, I’m--I’m not aware of that… I don’t know that it had not been tested at that time. I wasn’t here."
Hammana, hammana, hammana…
Not All There
Nevan Rupert says the Army's timing wasn't coincidental. A mechanical engineer and ballistics expert, he had spent seven years evaluating Dragon Skin for the Army at the time the May 2006 tests were conducted. He did not attend those tests, he told NBC's Myers, because the Army ordered him not to. "They didn't want you there?" Myers asked him.
"They didn't want a lot of people there," Rupert said.
Rupert told Myers that since Dragon Skin had not been developed by the Army, some officials viewed as a threat of funding for the Interceptor armor and other Army acquisition programs.
The Army fired Rupert in February 2007. Rupert had spent over 33 years as a civilian employee with the Weapons & Materials Research Directorate at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Rupert says he was dismissed for his support of the Dragon Skin armor.
Geese and Ganders
Thought the Dragon Skin ban supposedly applied to everyone in the Army, but in reality, it doesn't appear to apply to three-star generals and their staffs. Sources and documents obtained by NBC revealed that former ground commander in Iraq Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli and his staff had something of a penchant for the state-of-the-art body armor.
In response, a "Pentagon spokesman" said that Chiarelli “had no knowledge that Dragon Skin was prohibited.” Seriously. The ground commander in Iraq didn't know the Army had banned the use of Dragon Skin by his ground troops?
The spokesman also allowed as how Chiarelli knew his bodyguards ordered and received concealed body armor, he “didn't know the armor was Dragon Skin.”
Given Chiarelli's apparent ignorance of Army directives and what was going on in his own staff, it's little wonder the situation on the ground went to hell in a howitzer during his stewardship of it.
As part of its investigation, NBC conducted an independent side-by-side test of Dragon Skin and the Interceptor. Dragon Skin was a clear winner. Retired four-star Army Gen. Wayne Downing, an NBC military analyst, observed the tests and said, “What we saw today, Lisa, and again it’s a limited number of trials, Dragon Skin was significantly better.”
Shortly after NBC ran its report on Nightly News Senators Hillary Clinton (D-New York) and Jim Webb (D-Virginia) called on Comptroller General of the United States David M. Walker to initiate a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation to reassess the body armor systems currently being issued to military personnel.
That's a nice gesture on the part of the Senators, I suppose. Four years into Iraq, five years into Afghanistan, we might get a GAO investigation of the body armor fiasco. How long will it take for the GAO to determine the Dragon Skin body armor is better? Then, how long will it take for Congress to approve the money necessary to buy new body armor for all the troops? After that, how long will it take Pinnacle Inc. to make enough Dragon Skin jackets to meet the order?
It may be that the best we can hope for is that by the time the troops get state-of-the-art body armor, they won't need it any more.