Forces Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman was shot in the back by a terrorist
in Afghanistan this month and killed.
Ranger Sgt. Casey Joyce was shot in the back by an insurgent in Somalia
in 1993 and killed.
Both of these deaths probably could have been prevented had the grunts
been wearing decent flak jackets. Joyce was wearing the Army's best at
the time, the Ranger vest, but he'd removed the armor plates at the back
to lighten the load.
Chapman, like most of our Special Forces operators on dangerous missions,
wasn't wearing any vest at all -- these warriors say they're too heavy,
Retired Special Forces Colonel Dave Hunt, who ran black ops in bad places
like Cambodia, Iraq and Bosnia, says, "The stuff we had slowed you
down and cut your endurance."
Body armor dates back to the 13th century, when metal plates were worn
under chain mail. But by the 14th century, the knights were decked out
in so much armor -- from head to foot -- that their horses could barely
trot. If a horse went down, that knight was as immobilized as a turtle
on its back -- easy slicing for a swordsman. Because of the lack of mobility
and the subsequent introduction of gunpowder, the savvy knights eventually
did what many of our defenders are doing today -- gave body armor a pass.
Even though metallurgical skills and weaponry improved a thousandfold
from the days of the Knights of the Round Table to World War II -- where
the U.S. Army took 823,483 casualties (80 percent infantry) -- our grunts
still went into battle much like the Johnnies and Rebs in our Civil War,
totally unprotected. The same was true in the early part of the Korean
War -- where the Army took 109,958 casualties (84 percent infantry). By
the end of that conflict, flak jackets were available, but they were heavy,
made for warriors sitting behind a weapon, not for grunts slipping through
the bush. While these jackets were greatly improved during the Vietnam
War -- where the Army took 230,398 casualties (80 percent infantry) --
they were shunned by most grunts in the field because of weight, unwieldiness
and the fact that they became sweat suits in tropical conditions.
Today's technology can produce a lightweight jacket that will stop most
bullets. The concealed body armor currently worn by George W. Bush, the
Secret Service and many law-enforcement folks does the trick.
Sure, the president should have the best vest that money can buy, but
I have a hard time understanding why guys and gals in the Secret Service
get priority over our grunts, especially our Special Warfare operators.
Compare the casualty stats and ask yourself who needs the jackets more.
The Army has been spending serious money and too many years in search
of the right flack jacket when it's already on the shelf. With just a
fraction of the dough spent on research and development since Casey Joyce
died, our Special Ops guys could already have been wearing the finest
body armor available. If he'd been wearing one of those Secret Service
specials, Nathan Chapman would probably be with his wife and kids in Tacoma,
Wash., recovering from minor bruising instead of 6 feet under.
It costs a minimum of $1 million to train a Special Forces operator. Newsweek
spent $700 to buy a high-quality, lightweight vest for my trip to Somalia
-- without having a nickel invested in my education.
After 56 years around conflicts, I've seen generals up front where the
dying occurs no more than a dozen times. You can bet your old boots that
if they were the ones hanging out in Death Valley, the Army would have
the lightest, most up-to-date body armor going.
If the members of Congress would allocate just 1 percent of the energy
they spent trying to zap Clinton over Monica or they're about to spend
going after Bush over Enron and put it toward looking after our boys in
the trenches, you better believe decent body armor would be made in every
state in the union.
And, for a change, the porkers would be doing something patriotic. Just
ask widows Chapman, Joyce and scores more women in black.
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2002 David H. Hackworth
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