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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The Army is going to field test new body armor designed specifically for women soldiers, better proportioned to fit the female form. The soldiers have been trying out the new design at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and will be taking the vests with them to Afghanistan when they deploy later this year.

Lead designer Lynn Hennessey joins me from the U.S. Army's Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts, to talk about the new design. Lynn, welcome to the program.

LYNN HENNESSEY: Hi, thank you.

BLOCK: And what were the complaints you were hearing from women soldiers about the old body armor? What wasn't working?

HENNESSEY: Practically everything, I mean the fit wasn't working. Because the female has, of course, a narrower waist and a shorter torso, they found the body armor was too long. It was bruising their hip bones. They could not sit down without the body armor riding up like a cage and sort of covering their chin. They couldn't tighten the shoulders enough to get a close enough feel to the chest. They felt like the sides and the top, they were vulnerable. There were openings where they weren't being protected.

BLOCK: Because they just couldn't adjust it well enough, so just making a smaller size of the male body armor wouldn't work?

HENNESSEY: Not exactly because, as you know, a female has curves. So we needed to do something to the outer shell of the armor to bring it closer to the female body. We decided to add the plate that they wear on top of it, put it on the outside with a side plate opening, so it would curve over the chest. We also narrowed the shoulders because the soldier finds that - a female soldier had trouble with the current body armor because when they placed their weapon on the shoulder, there was no place for the end of the weapon to hold.

Now that the shoulder is narrower, they can fit the head of the weapon right up against the shoulder of the body armor.

BLOCK: So before the body armor got in the way, they had to sort of shove aside.

HENNESSEY: Right.

BLOCK: Well, as the women at Fort Campbell have been making these test runs with the new design, what have you been hearing from them?

HENNESSEY: Most of them, when they put it on, they were like, oh, my goodness, I need this right now. Can I have this? I could wear this all day. It fits so well. Are you sure it's the same plates? It seems so much lighter. We actually took a picture of one soldier hugging her vest, like she was immediately in love with it.

You have to understand they where these vests, they even sleep in them, so they need the comfort and they have to feel secure wearing it also, that they're getting the best protection.

BLOCK: So the new body armor will be going out to Afghanistan with soldiers from Fort Campbell. The war in Afghanistan is about to enter its 12th year, do you think this new design might be a little late?

HENNESSEY: Oh, absolutely not. We're always improving body armor. They'll always be wearing it no matter where they're going. Anywhere in the world they might be sent, they need protection.

BLOCK: Lynn Hennessey is a lead designer with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. We were talking about the new design of body armor for women soldier. Lynn Hennessey, thank you so much.

HENNESSEY: Thank you.

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