WASHINGTON – The Department of Defense failed to meet its self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline for equipping all U.S. soldiers and contractors in Iraq with lifesaving body armor.
More than 8,000 of the 160,000 people the military is trying to equip still lacked the equipment at the end of last week, an Army spokesman told Foxnews.com.
The Defense Department initially pledged to equip everyone by November. It later revised that goal to December.
"We expect this month's production to meet" the requirements, an Army spokesman said.
The 16-pound, ceramic-plated Interceptor body armor (search) can stop rounds from a Kalashnikov rifle, bullets from a 9-millimeter handgun and fragments from a grenade. The material used is lightweight and described as not too restrictive.
The vests have drastically reduced the number of upper-body injuries, which might have been fatal in the past. Dozens of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan credit the vests with saving their lives.
The military says the shortfall is because more troops have been required to serve in Iraq after the war than the Pentagon predicted.
At the beginning of the war, only dismounted combat soldiers were equipped with the armor. With the development of guerrilla war, soldiers with other specialties, such as cooks and supply clerks, also needed the protective equipment.
The Army failed to meet the needs of all soldiers because "the requirement kept going up. We respond to the numbers. If the number changes we have to produce" more gear, the Army spokesman said.
He added that in order to meet the shortfall quickly, the Army had its vendors increase production to 25,000 units a month. The equipment is being provided to soldiers according to greatest need, the spokesman said.
Although more troops are equipped now than two months ago, when as many as one-quarter of U.S. soldiers in Iraq lacked the protective gear, the continuing shortfall and repeated missed deadlines have attracted the attention of Capitol Hill.
"The U.S. government should be ashamed that communities around this country have had to accept the burden of equipping our troops. It is a national disgrace when the Department of Defense is so ill-prepared to equip our soldiers that their friends and families are forced to consider holding 'Bake Sales for Body Armor,'" wrote Rep. Ted Strickland (search), who has tracked this issue for months, in a letter sent Wednesday to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The shortfall is also causing concern among military families and lawmakers. Families across the country have been buying off-the-shelf protective gear for their sons and daughters in Iraq, spending $1,000 or more.
"We sent off some troops last Saturday and one of the mothers came up to me and said, 'We're really concerned. We're buying a set of body armor for our son in Iraq because we were not able to get a satisfactory commitment that he was going to get body armor,'" said Ohio state Sen. Marc Dann (search), a Democrat from the state’s 32nd district.
Dann has sought a solution for some of Ohio's military deployed to Iraq. Last week, the lawmaker from the northeast corner of the state proposed a bill to appropriate $500,000 to Ohio's adjutant general to equip any Ohio National Guardsmen who have not already received the body armor.
"The folks for whom we're responsible do not have all of the tools they need to be safe over there. The thought that we could send people in from Ohio without this and not supply them with this is astounding," Dann said.
Dann said he identified a vendor who can produce in 60 days vests identical to the military's armor. The federal government relies on just eight vendors to make the vests, although many other companies claim to have the capability to manufacture the same quality armor.
The Ohio adjutant general's office has acknowledged that some Ohio National Guardsmen have not been issued the outer tactical vest, others have not been issued the ceramic inserts, and one entire unit has been issued neither.
Equipping these soldiers "is a federal responsibility. They are federalized troops. I am losing sleep over the thought that we are sending them into battle without the appropriate protection," Dann said.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), a presidential candidate, has introduced legislation requiring the Department of Defense to reimburse family members who used their own money to purchase body armor that the government failed to provide.
Responding to Dann's legislation in Ohio, the Army spokesman said, "Our congressional liaison folks are working with that question. We expect this month's production to meet the current requirements."
He added that the Ohio units are "not deploying until March and production is going full capacity. By March, we will have produced 50,000 more sets."
After repeated missed deadlines, Dann is hesitant to believe the Department of Defense's promises that the Ohio troops will be fully equipped.
"The proof is in the pudding. Our folks who are there do not have this gear. How can I look that mother in the eye and say that he will have it when he goes?"