December 14, 2020

National defense bill pushes Pentagon to buy body armor for women in the military

Source: USA Today


WASHINGTON – The Senate is prodding the Pentagon to buy body armor designed for women troops and  to track injuries caused by ill-fitting gear.

The Pentagon has made uneven progress in outfitting women for training and fightingsince every combat job was opened to them in 2015. The Air Force began issuing women in its security forces body armor tailored to their bodies that allows freedom to move and shoot. The Army developed a helmet that can accommodate a hair bun and a bomb-disposal suit that fits women.

The approach has been piecemeal and progress not well-tracked, so combat veterans and Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, co-wrote a provision in the military spending bill that would direct the armed services to coordinate their efforts to equip women and to track data on injuries caused by poor-fitting gear. Both senators are members of the Armed Services Committee. 

The measure is included in the National Defense Authorization Act, a mammoth bill that directs $740 billion for national defense. President Donald Trump threatened to veto it over unrelated measures, but the bill has broad bipartisan support. It passed the Senate Friday, 84-13.

Duckworth, in an interview with USA TODAY, recalled grabbing any body armor, regardless of size, early in her service in the Iraq War because there wasn't enough to go around. The choice was often large or extra large. Small or extra small sizes that fit women better were in short supply. 

Comfort is a secondary concern to safety.

"If your body armor doesn't fit snugly against your body, then there's gaps around where the collarbone is that shrapnel or even snipers can target," Duckworth said.

The measure would direct the services to share information on injuries or wounds that occurred from ill-fitting body armor to help eliminate bad gear for women. The services would also have to share information on costs.

New equipment tends to be lighter, which is critical because women troops have suffered skeletal and muscular injuries in gear designed for men.

"The Marines may have information on injuries that would be relevant to the Army," Duckworth said. "The Army may have found they may have developed a particular contour shape that works better. They should be sharing that with the Marines, but everybody has eagerly been doing their own thing." 

Ernst, the first woman combat veteran elected to the Senate, said the provision would allow troops to provide feedback on their gear's performance and require the Pentagon to report the results to Congress.

"Having served in military uniform for 23 years, I strongly believe we have an obligation to our troops to provide them with equipment that fits and is usable, regardless if they’re male or female," Ernst said in a statement. "Through this year’s defense bill, I’m holding the Pentagon accountable for making sure our female service members have body armor and personal protective equipment that fits."

In a related matter, the services have been developing devices for an enduring problem for women pilots: urinating on long missions. For years, women pilots took an ad hoc and hazardous approach called "tactical dehydration." Before missions, they cut back on drinking, putting their performance and health at risk. Duckworth piloted a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq and was wounded on a mission in Iraq.

"I can't drop my trousers in a Black Hawk seat and pee," Duckworth said. "So we have to do better with ways for our female service members to be able to relieve themselves. Frankly, our military cannot go to war without the female service members. So we might as well accommodate the needs of a significant portion of our force. It will negatively affect our readiness if we don't." 

The Air Force has the highest percentage of women service members at 21% of its active-duty force. The Navy is next at 20% followed by the Army at 15% and the Marine Corps at 9%.

Why hasn't the Pentagon outfitted women properly five years after opening every military job to them?

"Women were not in charge," Duckworth said.

By:  Tom Vanden Brook