WASHINGTON – Just 29 Army soldiers have sought reimbursement so far for body armor and other equipment they bought to protect themselves on the front lines.
The scant number of requests are largely for updated ceramic body armor and total just $21,000, The Associated Press has learned. That is in contrast to Defense Department officials' predictions last year that the program could impose a financial burden on the military if people pressed for reimbursement for large amounts of protective gear.
Prodded by a new law and congressional pressure, Defense officials began the repayment program last October. Troops and their families had gained growing attention for complaints that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan weren't getting vital pieces of body armor from the Pentagon. Hometown groups had begun raising money and sending armor to the troops.
Army Maj. Paul Cucuzzella, who runs the reimbursement program from his office at Fort Meade, Md., said interest is starting to pick up. He said inquiries have grown from one a day to up to a half dozen.
"I think the consensus here is that it hasn't been what we thought it would be, but we didn't have any real judgment what it would be," Cucuzzella said.
Others, though, are faulting the Defense Department, saying it has not aggressively publicized the program.
"There can be no higher priority than taking care of our troops. And since day one — and this is an incredible understatement — the Pentagon has either outright fought or slow-walked implementation of this law," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who pushed for legislation on the reimbursement.
Cucuzzella said he believes there is no way to know how many soldiers could potentially use the program.
But a member of Dodd's staff said the 29 requests seem to represent a small fraction of those who may be eligible, since contractors have reported receiving orders for as much as five to 10 pieces of body armor a week for troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. The aide was not authorized to speak on the record.
Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, president of the National Guard Association, said information published by the Army on a military Web site last week misstated the cutoff date for purchases that qualify for the reimbursement as July 2004. That was the initial date the program was supposed to end, but it has since been extended to April 1, 2006.
Purchases made between September 2001 and April 1, 2006, are eligible for reimbursement, as long as soldiers have proper documentation and the specific equipment is on the Pentagon's list of accepted items.
"Obviously there is a serious disconnect here," Koper said. "I can only assume that the Defense Department seems to be doing a very poor job telling people there is a program, and that it applies to people all the way up to 2006."
Cucuzzella said he has been working in recent weeks to get more information out.
When the program was being considered, Pentagon officials complained that it would be hard to implement and said it would create "an unmanageable precedent that will saddle the DOD with an open-ended financial burden."
More than a dozen types of equipment are eligible for reimbursement, though military officials can expand the list at any time. Gear that qualifies for repayment includes side plate body armor, basic outer tactical vests and some combat helmets.
Only troops can apply for reimbursement, including in instances where relatives purchased an item for a soldier in the family.
Under the program, troops have to turn in the equipment to get the reimbursement. If an item has been damaged or lost, soldiers can submit a letter explaining what happened and may be able to receive the repayments, Cucuzzella said.
He also said some soldiers still serving may be able to turn in body armor they bought in the early days of the war, since now the military is routinely issuing equipment that may not have been readily available then.
Cucuzzella said that all but one request has been approved so far, and that one is also likely to pass muster. In some cases, he said he has worked with the soldiers or the suppliers to get the information or receipts needed.
As of this week, 15 active Army soldiers, five members of the Reserves, six from the National Guard and three former soldiers have applied for reimbursement, said Cucuzzella.
The military is preparing to supply more soldiers with ceramic side plates after studies showed some combat fatalities may have been prevented with that gear.
Dodd said he is pushing legislation that would require the Pentagon to provide personnel the most complete body armor protection when they are serving in combat operations.