January 7, 2006

Pentagon Study Faults US Body Armor in Iraq Deaths

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON -- Better body armor could have prevented or limited about 80 percent of fatal torso wounds suffered by Marines killed in Iraq, a report by U.S. military medical experts obtained on Friday said.

The report, conducted for the Marine Corps by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner and not released to the public, examined the cases of Marines fatally wounded from the start of the war in March 2003 through June 2005, and found weaknesses in the torso protective gear.

Bullets or shrapnel hit the Marines' shoulders, the sides of their torsos or other areas not fully covered by ceramic plates contained in the body armor in at least 74 of 93 fatal wounds examined in the study.

"Either a larger plate or superior protection around the plate would have had the potential to alter the fatal outcome," the study stated.

Critics in the U.S. Congress have accused the Pentagon of failing to provide the best possible body armor and armored vehicles for American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But military officials have defended the protective gear provided for troops as well as the quality of vehicles.

The study involved Marines killed due to "a primary lethal injury of the torso," which made up near a quarter of the Marines killed in the time period involved in the study. More than 60 percent of these torso injuries were caused by small arms fire, with 38 percent due to blast injuries from explosions, the study stated.

The troops studied were among 401 Marines killed in action during the applicable time period. Researchers reviewed autopsy reports and photographic records for each injury, the study said.


Army spokesman Paul Boyce said that U.S. forces have the best body armor in the world and it is "saving lives every day."

"The Army has made numerous improvements in the area of soldier-protection equipment to the outer tactical vests and to the small-arms protective inserts," said Army spokesman Paul Boyce.

"In response to the changing battlefield conditions and as new technologies emerge, the Army continues to develop improvements to soldier protection equipment to enhance survivability and mobility. We take operational security very seriously and will not discuss in public sensitive issues that may render any insight to the enemy about our capabilities, fielding plans, or tactics, techniques and procedures."

In November, the Army and Marine Corps they ordered the recall of 18,000 torso-protecting vests, some used by U.S. troops in Iraq, after determining that the body armor failed to meet ballistic specifications, but insisted troops were never put at risk. The Marines in May recalled about 5,000 other "outer tactical vests" because of questions about whether they offered adequate protection.

Christopher Kelly, spokesman for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, said the office that conducted the study performs full autopsies on all troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the evaluation of body armor "is one of many issues we address with these investigations."

"Information regarding the effectiveness of body armor has been shared with those who design and field personal protective gear," Kelly said.

More than 2,190 U.S. troops have been killed in the Iraq war and another 16,000 have been wounded in combat.