Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Protecting the Troops

The U.S. Marine Corps. has recalled thousands of defective body armor vests it issued to nearly 10,000 troops headed for Iraq.

An investigative story in The Marine Times provides details:

The Marine Corps issued to nearly 10,000 troops body armor that government experts urged the Corps to reject after tests revealed critical, life-threatening flaws in the vests.

In all, the Marine Corps accepted about 19,000 Interceptor outer tactical vests from Point Blank Body Armor Inc. that failed government tests due to “multiple complete penetrations” of 9mm pistol rounds, failing scores on other ballistic or quality-assurance tests, or a combination of the two.


But according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with officials at Natick, the Marine Corps and Point Blank, the service rejected that advice. Instead, the Marine program manager responsible for fielding the vests, Lt. Col. Gabriel Patricio, and Point Blank’s chief operating officer, Sandra Hatfield signed waivers that allowed the Corps to buy and distribute vests that failed to meet the Corps’ minimum standards and specifications.

Faced with the imminent publication of this story, the result of an eight-month investigation by Marine Corps Times, the Marine Corps on May 4 issued a Corpswide message recalling 5,277 Interceptor vests from 11 lots that failed government ballistic performance tests — slightly more than half the total vests issued to Marines from questionable lots.

The Corps has not said what it intends to do with the more than 4,000 other vests the testers urged to be rejected that are now being worn by Marines. Nor has it said what it will do with the remaining 10,000 that it accepted over the objections of the test labs but which haven’t been fielded.

Despite signed waivers acknowledging that the vests were substandard, the Marine Corps questioned the accuracy of the government test results all along. The Corps pulled samples from some of the challenged lots and had them tested at a private, commercial lab.

Patricio and other officials with Marine Corps Systems Command at Quantico, Va., said the second tests show that the vests meet safety standards and do not put Marines at increased risk of injury.

“I did not ignore warnings or advice from my staff. I simply looked at all the factors involved as the program manager and made the decision that I needed to make based on all the information that I had,” Patricio said in a May 3 telephone interview. “The decision was mine and within my immediate authority as program manager” to waiver and accept the rejected vests. Patricio recently retired from the Corps and now works as an independent acquisitions consultant.

While each vest has a unique serial number on it, Point Blank would not provide a list of serial numbers from the lots Natick said should be rejected. Point Blank said that information was “proprietary.”

Blame is being placed on the tight schedule to get body armor to troops about to go to Iraq. Field commanders weren't told of the waivers.

The waivers came at a time when U.S. forces were facing increased risk from roadside bombs, ambushes and intense urban combat. The military rushed to field the Interceptor armor to all its troops, not just those typically involved in close combat, pushing the vests to the field as quickly as they were produced.

But Donald Rumsfeld says you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Or something like that. And the death toll is now over 1,600.