WASHINGTON – The Department of Defense has provided thousands of top-of-the-line protective vests to coalition forces on the ground while some U.S. troops in Iraq have been asked to take their chances with inferior flak jackets, sources told Foxnews.com.
The American military has certified the use of body armor that can stop rounds from a Kalashnikov rifle, a 9-millimeter handgun and fragments from a grenade. The material used is lightweight and not too restrictive. So far, more than two dozen soldiers in Afghanistan credit the vests with saving their lives.
The only problem with the life-saving equipment is getting hold of it.
Congress has allocated funds for all U.S. troops to wear 16-pound, ceramic-plated Interceptor body armor (search), but as many as 51,000 American soldiers and civilian administrators in Iraq have not yet been equipped with the gear, and have been asking friends and families at home to purchase and send them off-the-shelf models for protection.
As part of the inducement to get other nations to join coalition forces in Iraq, Washington has offered protective gear and other equipment to allied countries. Coalition requests have varied — the Hungarian military asked for desert vehicles; the Latvians requested night vision goggles.
According to a source at U.S. Central Command (search), the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command has given away thousands of vests that match the description of the Interceptor body armor to protect foreign soldiers from small arms fire.
As of two weeks ago, one or both parts of the two-part vests — made up of an outer tactical vest (OTV) and a small arms protective insert (SAPI) — were provided to troops in Iraq from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Latvia, Lithuania, the Philippines, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Poland and the Ukraine. As of that time, the Department of Defense had provided 3,363 OTVs and 4,161 SAPIs, the source said.
Though the source could not confirm who manufactured the materials, the vests are described by the Polish military as matching the description of the Interceptor.
Col. Pawel Hejna, head of the Multinational Logistics Center of the division in Iraq under Polish command, told Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest Polish daily newspaper, last weekend that the vest "protects from a weapon such as a Kalashnikov, which is often used here.... This is good news for our soldiers and a certain type of assurance for their families."
The Interceptor has been "very successful" in protecting soldiers subjected to small arms fire, said Col. John Norwood, the Army's project manager for soldier equipment.
Chad Jackson, a soldier with the Third Infantry Division in Iraq, was shot while wearing an Interceptor vest. He told Fox News that the shot felt like being punched in the chest, but because he was wearing the vest, he sustained no serious injuries.
Rep. Ted Strickland (search), D-Ohio, who has been trying to draw attention in Congress to the need for more vests, said he heard about a soldier who was not issued an Interceptor but borrowed one from a friend before going on patrol.
While on patrol, "he was shot twice in the chest and twice in the arm, and he survived. And his survival is credited to the fact that he had this Interceptor vest on,” Strickland said.
“It’s likely that there have been soldiers injured and killed as a result of not having” the Interceptor vests, Strickland added.
Pentagon sources said that in the initial phase of hostilities with Iraq, all American combat forces were equipped with the Interceptor, but the Defense Department was not prepared to equip so many occupying forces. Reservists and troops recently rotated to Iraq have particularly suffered from the lack of gear.
U.S. soldiers not issued the Interceptor equipment are using enhanced versions of the Vietnam-era flak jackets, which are incapable of stopping a round from a Kalashnikov (search) or AK-47, the most common weapon in Iraq.
The flak jackets (search) can only stop slower projectiles. A defense official confirmed that the Interceptor, which was introduced in 2000, “has saved many lives” and that the flak jackets are “not effective or as effective.”
In the meantime, mothers of American soldiers are raising money to pay from $650 to more than $1,000 for the off-the-shelf equipment. According to an Army spokesman, the Defense Department will not consider buying the commercially available equipment because the Army is only permitted to buy items that it has certified and tested.
Asked whether the Defense Department plans to certify retail models, the spokesman replied, "There are no other efforts to certify or test them." He added that soldiers' decisions to use the body armor sent from home are "ultimately a personal choice.”
Norwood said that an investigation into the quality of off-the-shelf armor is not being planned at his level. Currently, he is working with a number of vendors to speed production of the Interceptor. He said that production has increased from 3,350 vests per month in January to 25,000 in November. The number of vendors supplying the Army has increased from three to six.
Production has been accelerated and “at some point in December,” the shortfall should be filled, Norwood added.
Strickland said whatever the pace, it has been too slow for his comfort.
“If I were in a position to make the decision, I would say we’re going to do whatever we have to do to get those materials to our troops as rapidly as possible. And that does not appear to be the attitude of the Pentagon,” Strickland said.