WASHINGTON – Throughout history, military gear has been made with the male physique in mind. But for women in today's combat or close-to-combat jobs, that can mean body armor that fits so poorly it's tough to fire a weapon, combat uniforms with knee pads that hit around mid-shin and flight suits that make it nearly impossible to urinate while in a plane.
With women taking on new roles, the issue is getting fresh attention from the military.
Seven hundred female Army troops are testing a new combat uniform for women with shorter sleeves and with knee pads in the right place for their generally shorter legs. A committee on women's issues has recommended that flight suits be redesigned for both men and women so it's unnecessary to disrobe before urinating. And engineers have been looking at ways to design armor that better fits the contours of a woman's body.
Some military women are reluctant to embrace changes that would set them apart from their male colleagues, but several said in interviews that the changes beat the consequences of the current one-piece flight suits or being unable to engage in battle or defend themselves because of uncooperative gear.
Female troops are about 20 percent more likely than their male counterparts to report musculoskeletal disorders, and poorly fitting body armor could be a factor. For female aviators, dehydration can be a hazard if they opt not to drink water before flights, and those who wait too long to use the bathroom can experience urinary problems.
Some of the challenges for women came up in focus groups conducted with both male and female service members. A majority of them reported that equipment given to females was inadequate, "including, but not limited to poor quality or outdated equipment, lack of necessary equipment, tardy issue of equipment and equipment not sized or designed for women," according to a 2009 report by the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.
The report noted that the problems weren't always confined to women.
"When your gear doesn't fit right, it's going to make you more vulnerable and less effective," said Spc. Chandra Banks, 27, an Army reservist who has done two tours in Iraq and now works as a research fellow for the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Banks said she noticed improvements in her body armor during her second deployment, but because the armor was so large it still chafed her hips when she had to sit for hours in a Humvee, and its unevenly distributed weight aggravated a knee injury. She said better-fitting body armor would also make it easier to position a rifle or machine gun for shooting.
In January, the congressionally appointed Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended to Congress and President Barack Obama that women be allowed to fully serve in combat. The reality, however, is that women already are serving in war zones in positions such as truck drivers and helicopter pilots. About 14 percent of all service members are women, and about 220,000 women have gone to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army is well under way in developing a woman's combat uniform that would replace the "unisex" one designed primarily for a man's body. It is similar to combat uniforms in women's sizes offered by the Air Force and Marines. The Army Uniform Board will vote this fall on whether to adopt it.
The goal is to give the approximately 70,000 women in the Army a better-fitting and more professional looking uniform that doesn't stand out when they are in formation, said Maj. Sequana Robinson, assistant product manager for clothing at the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va.
A better-fitting uniform "raises motivation and the performance level because a person feels more professional," Robinson said. "So, it's the same uniform. It is not, not a form-fitting uniform. It's just a uniform that's based on female body dimensions. It's less material because women are different than men."
For the first time since 1988, engineers at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts are doing an anthropometric survey of thousands of troops to better gauge body shapes and measurements within the Army's force. They are measuring 13,000 troops, including 5,000 female active duty and National Guard members.
The measurements are expected to help the center design body armor that better fits women.
If body armor is too small, it can be painful. If it's too large, it can be difficult to walk in or otherwise maneuver.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Maria Canales, 30, of New York City said that during her Iraq deployment in 2005-2006 she first wore body armor that was painfully snug, but after she upgraded to a larger size she worried about her safety.
"Thank God, nothing happened where my body was compromised, but it was looser and I guess that's the disadvantage because what if ... we have contact, it would be easier for something to happen," Canales said.
Since women tend to be smaller than men, the issue of body armor weight can cause "physical performance degradation" in a number of ways, David Accetta, a spokesman for the Natick center, said in an email. While that's also true for many male troops, the problems tend to be more pronounced in smaller women, Accetta said. Engineers are attempting to design armor that takes into account women's breasts as well as their typically narrower shoulders and smaller waists. Accetta said it's not clear when it will be done.
"The physics associated with trying to have the body armor work in a complex shape is just a bridge too far right now," Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, the top officer at the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier, told a congressional committee recently.
For fliers, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services has recommended that flight suits be designed for both men and women that are more functional, meaning it is easier to pull down in the back to use the restroom without an aviator's having to completely disrobe. Last week, Fuller said the Army would look into designing such a suit with women in mind. Since 2004, the Air Force has offered an aviation suit with roomier hip and chest dimensions for women, and female aviators can opt to request one with an "extended zipper" that the Air Force says "may minimize the need for a urinary relief device."
Similar to what happens to men who are larger or smaller than average, some female troops also have faced supply issues for some gear such as boots.
Staci-Jill Burnley, a spokeswoman for the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier, said that boots are procured based on a statistical representation of the soldier population and that the military monitors trends so shortages can be corrected.
Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who is director of the women in the military project at the Women's Research and Education Institute, said, "One of the difficulties has been in the past there weren't enough women in the military to make it worthwhile to go out with separate contracts to get women's clothes made for certain things, so they just wore the men's."
She said it's just logical for the military to make upgrades for the women since, "the men wouldn't like it if they were stuck wearing women's sizes."
Christina Roof, national legislative director of AMVETS, said she's happy to see the military look at making improvements for women, although it should have happened sooner.
"A lot of the women are carrying around their weight and they're not complaining, but I think if they're going to be asked to do a lot of the same things, they should be equipped with the proper gear so they can do the best job they can do," Roof said.
One female soldier happy with the new uniform under development is Capt. Malgorzata A. Bujak, 28, a nurse who is helping with the testing. She said she gets cornered by other female soldiers asking how they can get one, too.
I tell them "that hopefully it will be coming out shortly," Bujak said. "They are still testing it, but hopefully, it's coming out shortly."