BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Pentagon and Marine Corps authorized the purchase of 84,000 bulletproof vests in 2006 that not only are too heavy but are so impractical that some U.S. Marines are asking for their old vests back so they can remain agile enough to fight.
Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway wants to know who authorized the costly purchase of the nearly 30-pound flak jackets and has ordered the Marine procurement officers at the Quantico base in Virginia to halt the rest of an unfilled order, FOX News has learned.
"I’m not quite sure how we got to where we are, but what I do know is it is not a winner," Conway told FOX News at the end of his recent trip to Iraq.
"I think it is foolish to buy more."
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Twenty-four thousand more vests were scheduled to be shipped to Iraq in the coming months, but Conway halted that order during his trip.
"I’ve asked them to tell me — to walk me through — the whole process ... how it evolved," Conway said.
"It goes back a couple of years. I think the vest has its advantages. It fits pretty well on the waist. The weight is distributed more evenly on the hips than shoulders, but Marines don’t like it. I didn’t like it when I put it on."
The protective jackets, manufactured by Protective Products International in Sunrise, Fla., are known as Modular Tactical Vests, or MTVs. With heavy plates, known as sappis, on their sides, they provide more coverage than the older vests. That makes them much safer but also much heavier. The MTVs have more protection than the older "Interceptor," made by Point Blank, and they distribute weight more evenly.
The new vests, weighing in at about 30 pounds each, are three lbs. more than previous regulation body armor. Marines, who are already carrying up to 95 lbs. depending on the mission, say they feel the difference.
The vest slips over the head, but one Marine said that because of its weight, it often rips the skin off one’s nose and scrapes the ears.
It also has a rip cord that allows for quick release should the fighter fall into water. But many Marines say the cord is hard to reach and often gets caught on equipment in their vehicles. They say it literally falls apart; one Marine said it was like getting caught in battle with your pants around your ankles.
Marines are issued an instructional video to learn how to use the vest properly.
The Marine commandant and his sergeant major, Carlton Kent, became aware of the problem during a Thanksgiving visit to Iraq. At town hall meetings, few Marines raised their hands when asked if they liked the new equipment.
Conway and his team refused to wear the vests during their visit to Iraq last week due to their weight and impracticality.
Marine Corps Systems Command, in a written statement to FOX News, said it responded in January 2006 to an Urgent Universal Need Statement from the field for better protective gear and awarded the contract in September 2006 after a series of user conferences at Quantico and in consultation with the Marine Expeditionary Forces.
The order was placed before Conway became commandant in November 2006.
Marine spokesman Lt. Col. TV Johnson said the problem with the vests is not that they are unsafe or impractical.
"Marines are still able to run and climb walls with the gear. The fact that the additional protection adds weight, and that the means of getting in and out of it "over-the-head" seem to be the chief complaints," Johnson told FOX News in an email.
"In Desert Storm, we wore flack jackets that were a fraction of the weight of the lighter vest we wore before the MTV. They wouldn't, however, stop a bullet or even a knife, so if I were going to a gunfight, I know what piece of gear I'd take," said Johnson.
FOX News National Security Correspondent Jennifer Griffin was traveling with the Marine Commandant to Iraq and Afghanistan last week. This report is part of a multi-part series also appearing on Special Report with Brit Hume at 6 pm ET.