- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Army announced Thursday that it will withdraw from service more than 16,000 sets of ceramic body armor plates that the Pentagon’s inspector general believes were not properly tested and could jeopardize the lives of U.S. service personnel. The Washington Times reported yesterday that the armor was deemed unsafe by Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell.

A Defense official, speaking on the condition that he not be named, said the Army is acting proactively while challenging the contention of the inspector general.

“This decision reflects the Army’s commitment to do everything within its power to be sure only the very best equipment is fielded to its soldiers,” the official said.

He said, however, that there have been no reports of defects in the plates or deaths or injuries resulting from their use. The plates are being recalled so that soldiers will not worry that they are wearing unsafe armor, he said.

The equipment in question was manufactured between 2005 and 2007 and accounts for 1.6 percent of the 1.9 million plates that the Army has purchased to date, he said.

The recall was announced a day before the inspector general’s office is to brief the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter. Mrs. Slaughter, New York Democrat, has focused on the issue of body armor failures and procurement.

“Two years ago, I asked the Department of Defense Inspector General to make sure that the U.S. Army was doing their due diligence in ensuring that the quality of body armor being used by our Armed Forces meets the very highest standards to save lives,” Mrs. Slaughter said in a statement.

“The first report we received from the Inspector General was totally inadequate. We expect that this report will be more accurate. I will keep fighting tooth and nail to hold the Army accountable to our men and women in uniform and their families.”

In April, after receiving a report on the subject, she said, “During a time of war, it’s shameful that the Army would not scrupulously ensure that every piece of equipment is properly tested, especially a fundamentally life and death product such as body armor. … I demand that those who negligently and callously gambled with the lives of our brave men and women in uniform be fired immediately.”

Gary Comerford, a spokesman for the inspector general, said Wednesday, “We do have a body armor report and it will be out within the next few days.”

He declined to discuss the findings or say to what extent troop deaths or injuries might have resulted from armor that had not been properly tested.

A Defense official who is familiar with the issue said that the “Army is going to push back” against the report and accused the inspector general of “digging until something was found that was not very solid.”

Late Tuesday, Army and Defense officials were still submitting information to the inspector general’s office challenging the findings, another Defense official told The Times.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report and the findings had not been made public.

In March, the inspector general found that the Army did not follow federal requirements in procuring body armor components and identified deficiencies in 16 of 28 Army contracts.

Maj. Clifford Yarbrough, who served with the 3rd Special Forces group in Afghanistan, told The Times that his unit, along with other Special Forces and the Delta Forces, were issued titanium plates. These plates, which are ordered by these special units under a separate budget, can withstand multiple hits by the enemy and have saved many lives, said Maj. Yarbrough, who now teaches at a high school in Arkansas.

The major, who has two enlisted sons, said that the ceramic plates issued to Army and Marine Corps personnel do not provide sufficient protection against close enemy fire.

“Interceptor vests are not fielded with the interceptor titanium that give the men more enhanced protection,” he said. “We had guys who were engaged, and short of a 50 caliber, it would stop everything. They got a little trauma from the bruising. Normally, those rounds would go right through them.”

Roger Charles, a retired Marine and editor of DefenseWatch, the Internet news magazine for Soldiers for the Truth, a nonprofit foundation representing front-line troops, has investigated the body armor issue for 3½ years and said that the Army’s failures have placed the “men on the front lines at risk.”

“There is no question in my mind … that the Army and Marine Corps have issued inferior body armor to our troops,” he said. “It’s their lives that are at stake, and their lives are worth getting them the best.”

Army officials have said that they stand by the body armor that the service issues and plan to release additional information to challenge the audit.

In March, the inspector general found that in 11 of the 28 contracts, adequate files were not kept and that it could not be determined whether the best informed decisions were made regarding procurement of body armor.

The March audit was limited to Army and Marine body armor contracts and orders awarded between January 2004 and December 2006 valued at more than $5.2 billion.

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