They don’t need an expensive study from a think-tank to tell them this fact. I, or many others could have told them that more does not always mean better. Judging PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) requirements is a balancing act that requires assessing the threat, environment, situation at hand, and many other factors. An all or nothing approach does not work in reality and trying to enforce an all or nothing mentality will cause people to either be at risk, not effective on the battlefield or risking their careers.
I understand that nobody wants to lose a soldier, trust me when I say I know that feeling first-hand and it is not something I would wish on anyone. However in today’s Army it appears that leaders are more concerned with their end of tour awards and evaluations than they are on doing the “smart” thing. If you put too much body armor and protection on a soldier, they end up being at more risk of being wounded or killed on the battlefield because they will lack maneuverability and flexibility.
Look at the movie ‘300’ for example. The Spartans had some basic protection in metal shin-guards, shields and helmets. Many of the Persians (I think that is what they were) were covered in armor and unable to move as nimbly and swiftly. Now, before you start a flaming comment to me about how that was Hollywood, I know that. I know what we saw in the movie was a image and story that the creators wanted to tell. However the principle is there and I hope easily understood.
If you are a gunner hanging out of the turret on the top of an up-armored Humvee or a MRAP, then you have the most dangerous job there is. I spent more hours than I can count doing this and I am very aware of the risk. I am also aware that unless there is a roll-over or the vehicle is destroyed (and the gunner survives) then the gunner does not typically move much. This person should have every piece of protection on and then some. You are a static target up top with half your body exposed above the skyline of the vehicle.
However if you are dismounted and walking up and down mountains, etc. then it does not make sense to have neck guards, shoulder guards, etc. on. Heck, sometimes you should not even have a helmet on. When I was an ETT, it was common to patrol or do missions in a boonie hat, ball cap, etc. When you see the movie “At War’ you will see more than your fair share of ETTs in non-regulation headgear and sometimes without any at all. You will also see some in helmets. It all depends on the factors mentioned in the very first paragraph.
Did I put myself at higher risk when I was at 9,000+ feet elevation walking up and down mountains without a helmet on?
It all depends on who you ask.If you ask the top leadership that never left their offices, who’s gear never left the cute little tree behind their desk that was made to hold their body armor, helmet, etc. Then they would tell you I did put myself at risk, did not follow orders,Â and that I set a bad example. If you ask the Afghan Company Commander in the picture with me, he would tell you that I had way too much gear as it was. Note that he has no weapon. As we started this patrol I asked him where his weapon was and he told me that he has to carry the radio so he left his weapon in the patrol base.
To set the stage here, we are at over 9000′ elevation. We flew in at midnight the night before to set up observation posts and catch bad guys trying to escape the valley below. I am the only American on this mission with about 10 Afghans. Yes, by myself with 10 Afghans (and as you can see, not all had weapons) on this particular all day patrol. There was one other American several kilometers (and several terrain features) away. In the photo above we are taking a break and as you can tell I am laying back becuase I am whooped.
All of the Afghan soldiers had an Ak-47 and probably 3-5 magazines of ammunition. The Commander (above) had a icom radio. I had my M4 rifle, 11ea. 30-round magazines of 5.56 ammo, my 9mm pistol with 5 magazines of ammo, 2 frag grenades, an MBITER radio, tactical satellite antenna, smoke grenades, star cluster illumination pyro, a claymore mine, body armor, camelback hydration system, and other associated gear on my personal tactical rig. I made my terp carry the Combat Lifesaver Bag.
See the difference? I went on this mission knowing I had to carry everything with me planing for the worse. My Afghan soldiers really didn’t consider it much more than another stroll through the mountains. This is a whole other story and worthy of another blog so I won’t digress on this one anymore.
On this mission I shed my helmet. I took the risk and made the command decision. During the mission I was wishing like hell I had left the body armor too. Why? Because there were plenty of trees, boulders and stuff to hide behind had we got in contact. The weight of the body armor, along with everything else at such an altitude became more of a liability than an asset. Hindsight is 20/20, but I knew after coming off this patrol that if I went out again during this 5-day mission that I would leave the body armor behind in the patrol base, probably right next to the Afghan Commander’s weapon.
This is the balancing act that has to happen every time a soldier leaves the wire. In urban environments and low or flat elevation environments like Iraq or in Kabul or Baghram it probably requires more protection and extra stuff. In the mountains or primarily dismounted operations where a soldier can utilize the terrain to provide protection and where he needs to move quickly and safely over or around obstacles then the level of PPE needs to be dropped or modified.
Do the plates in the body armor stop bullets? You bet they do and they have proven it time and time again. Does the ACH helmet stop bullets? You betcha, regardless of what any specs say. However there becomes a point that looking like and moving like a knight from the mid-evil times becomes more of a risk than going on a mission with no protection on at all.
Afghanistan (the Popular, Forgotten War) is not Iraq. I have said that once, I have said it a thousand times. Less body armor may not be the exact answer for that locale, however having body armor and PPE that is flexible and able to be adpated quickly to the situation and environment is. I am sure the Army is working hard and quick to develop PPE that can be lighter but still offer the neccesary protection. Until that is fielded they need to look internally to their SOPs and policies and evaluate what decisions can be safely delegated and allow the commanders on the ground to make some of the calls (hence assuming the risk for them and their subordinates). The One size, fits all policy may work in a lot of places in the Army, but this is not one of them .