Pentagon, Lawmakers Review Body Armor Standards

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Pentagon generals met with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday to discuss body armor for U.S. troops. A secret Pentagon study revealed in media reports last week found that four out of five Marines who died in Iraq from torso wounds lacked more complete body armor that might have saved them.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Several Pentagon generals met behind closed doors yesterday with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The subject was body armor. A secret Pentagon study disclosed in news reports last week found that four out of five Marines who died in Iraq from wounds to their torsos may have survived had their body armor been more complete. The officers later told reporters they're doing all they can to protect US forces. Others questioned those efforts. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Although the Pentagon study suggests many dead Marines might be alive today had they worn more body armor, Marine Major General William Cato insisted to reporters yesterday that Marines in Iraq get the equipment they need.

Major General WILLIAM CATO (US Marines): There's nothing more important to the Marine Corps than the protection of our Marines, and we're fielding the best body armor and protective equipment available, we think, in the world today. And as we have the opportunities to upgrade the equipment, we do that.

WELNA: And Senator John Warner, the Republican chair of the Armed Services Committee, insisted that when it comes to body armor, Congress has not shortchanged US forces in Iraq either.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican; Chairman, Armed Services Committee): There is no problem with regard to the funding or authorization legislation by the Congress. There's more than adequate money, has been, is and always will be, to provide our troops with only the best equipment in the world.

WELNA: Warner cautioned that adding more body armor could diminish a soldier's mobility. Still, Pentagon officials say both the Marines and the US Army are now moving to provide side armor for all their forces in Iraq. Army Major General Jeffrey Sorensen said yesterday that 230,000 sets of these protective plates will be sent there this year.

Major General JEFFREY SORENSEN (US Army): I do not want to discuss the details of exactly when that will be done, because I don't think it's pertinent at this point in time for everybody to know, specifically those that are against our soldiers in theater.

WELNA: But Gordon Mellow(ph) contends the Pentagon is sending US forces to Iraq with inadequate protection. This former Marine and Vietnam veteran from Somers, Connecticut, saw his 22-year-old son Gariff(ph) deployed to Iraq with the Marines in August but without any body armor to protect his lower torso. Mellow spent more than $500 on two pieces of body armor for his son that he'd fully expected the Marines to provide.

Mr. GORDON MELLOW (Former Marine and Vietnam Veteran): I was very, very surprised, but, you know, Gariff's mother and I, we certainly didn't hesitate to purchase the armor and have it shipped out to him. I mean, I wanted to do everything that was possible to provide additional protection to our son. He's our only son.

WELNA: Mellow says officers at a Marine base told him there's no money for the extra armor.

Mr. MELLOW: I visited our son out at Twentynine Palms before he deployed to Iraq, and, you know, got into some conversations there with some brass, and basically their answer was: It's not in the budget.

WELNA: Connecticut Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd says there are many families like Mellow's who've also dug into their own pockets to buy their loved ones body armor.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): The most fundamental obligation that the Pentagon has to men and women in uniform is to see to it they have the equipment they need. They're not getting it, and anyone who's looked at this knows this. And so my amendment that I'll be offering again here now will require that they provide this equipment.

WELNA: Armed Services Chairman Warner, meanwhile, says he expects his panel will be holding hearings soon on whether US forces have adequate body armor. David Welna, NPR News.

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