- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

Buying flak jackets
One of the best things about being a print reporter, I've always thought, is not having to lug around all the cameras, lights and other heavy equipment borne by the television people. All we need is our notepads and pencils, and we're ready to work.
But one other piece of gear is becoming standard equipment on recent stories from Afghanistan to the Middle East the flak jacket.
No one was thinking about combat coverage when U.N. correspondent Betsy Pisik was packing to go to Beirut for the Arab League summit at the end of last month. But when a suicide bomber killed 26 people at a Passover Seder in Israel and the Israelis responded with its most dramatic military operations in decades, we diverted Miss Pisik to Jerusalem to help with the story.
On Wednesday, we decided to send photographer Maya Alleruzzo to join her. Informed of this, Miss Pisik immediately said: "Have her bring flak jackets for both of us; there are none available anywhere in the Middle East."
All the reporters covering the conflict are wearing flak jackets and helmets; in fact most are reluctant even to travel into the West Bank with a reporter who is not properly protected.
Usually they are blue in color, sleeveless and marked with the words "Press" or "TV" in the largest possible letters. Some of the veteran war correspondents have their own custom-made body armor while organizations with permanent bureaus in Israel maintain a stock of jackets and helmets ready for any reporters who are shuttled in. The New York Times and the BBC, we understand, are also acquiring armored jeeps.
Sadly, it is the Israel Defense Force that presents the greatest threat to the reporters. Most of the conflict area has been declared a closed military zone and the IDF is showing little sympathy for reporters who try to cover the fighting in those areas in defiance of the order. Some of the reporters have taken to joking that the word "Press" or "TV" on their jackets and vehicles "gives the IDF something to aim for."

Our Afghan experience
I turned for advice on the purchase of flak jackets to Deputy Foreign Editor Willis Witter, who had some experience with their use during his 10 weeks in Pakistan and Afghanistan last fall.
The newspaper already had about a dozen jackets, purchased on the advice of the D.C. Metropolitan Police in preparation for expected mass protests during meetings of the International Monetary Fund in Washington last year.
The protests were called off in response to the events of September 11, but we still have the jackets. It was one of these that Mr. Witter took with him to Afghanistan.
But there were two things wrong with them. The first is that they are very heavy and cumbersome, weighing more than 20 pounds. The second is that they are colored in camouflage patterns, making the wearer look too much like a combatant and a likely target for any distant sniper.
Because of that, Mr. Witter says, he never dared to wear the jacket except when riding in a car where it couldn't be seen.
So we set out this weekend to purchase new jackets for Miss Pisik and Miss Alleruzzo.
Our first choice was the so-called "Ranger" vest used by U.S. Special Forces. It weighs in at just 7 pounds, or about twice that when fitted with a ceramic chest plate that supposedly will deflect rifle bullets at close range. Unfortunately these are extremely hard to get because all those being made are being bought up by the military.
Full Metal Jacket, an Alexandria supplier of military and police items, began calling around the country on our behalf and came up with something we think will be almost as good. The store found two blue police vests, which also can be fitted with the bulletproof plates, and is having them rushed by overnight delivery to us from Florida.
These are heavier than the Ranger vests; with the ceramic plates added they will again come to more than 20 pounds. And the helmets that we already had on hand may be goofy looking affairs but are standard Kevlar, just like the U.S. Army wears.
So these two young ladies will be less than fashionable when they venture out into the West Bank in the days ahead. But we hope they will be as safe as we can make them.
David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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