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Advances in tactical vests for female soldiers will mean American women serving in the Army will be far safer and more comfortable on the battlefield.
After all, body armor should fit -- regardless of whether you are man or a woman.
Yet female soldiers have long had to endure the challenges of wearing armor designed specifically for men. Women make up 14 percent of today’s Army and see combat more often than ever, yet women are still issued equipment designed for male soldiers.
Women tend to be shorter and curvier, meaning the Improved Outer Tactical Vests (IOTVs) ride up and regularly bruise their hips.
These vests are wider on top for male torsos -- another issue for women trying to shoulder a rifle.
The Project Manager Soldier Protective Equipment Office and the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center undertook designing a solution, one Time magazine just honored among the best inventions of 2012.
Lynne Hennessey, a design, pattern and prototype team clothing designer with the Natick center, recently told NPR that 85 percent of female soldiers do not fit properly into the extra-small IOTV currently in widespread use.
For many it has been like wearing a cage, unbending, uncurving, riding up when they sit, and meant to fit a small man, not a woman.
The new design adds darting to the front of vest, similar to civilian female clothing, allowing the front to be more form-fitting.
The side plate sizes have been decreased to a 6×6 inch or 6×8 inch option from the standard issue 7×8 inch plates. The plate side pockets can also be moved and adjusted making the vest fit closer to the body, particularly near the underarms.
The new model also balances better with a medium-sized vest; its plates weigh about 23 pounds. Further advances include shortening the torso, changing the ballistic collar and modifying the way the front panel is inserted.
Nineteen soldiers from 1st BCT's Female Engagement Teams recently tested the new vests in normal training exercises.
With their input, the evaluation process will continue and the team expects to make further changes, such as the location of the buckles on the shoulders.
The 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade will be the first unit to test the new female body armor in Afghanistan.
By summer 2013 as many as 3,000 female soldiers may be better protected.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.