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Could better body armor save American troops?

'Scarborough Country' investigates the newest Pentagon report
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American troops may be dying in Iraq because they don't have the right body armor to protect them according to a secret Pentagon report revealed in Saturday's “New York Times.” The report studied 93 Marines who died in Iraq from upper body wounds and found that 80 percent of those brave Marines might be alive today if they had had more body armor. 

For the first two years of the war, American troops were issued only enough body armor to cover the upper chest and the back.  Now, in this Pentagon study, 15 percent of Marines died from lethal wounds to their shoulders; 42 percent died from wounds above, under, or next to the armor plate.  And 23 percent died from wounds to the side of the torso, where there's no protection. 

Now, there’s indication that the body armor which could protect the troops had been available for two years. 

Brian Hart, whose son John was killed in Iraq in October of 2003 joined ‘Scarborough Country’ on Monday to discuss the report because his son had complained repeatedly to him about the body armor he had been issued.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert Maginnis, retired of the United States Army also weighed in on the findings.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, ‘SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY’:  Mr. Hart, let me begin with you.  Is your son dead tonight because the Pentagon didn't provide him with the type of armor that he needed? 

BRIAN HART, SON KILLED IN IRAQ:  Well, I think the answer is, no.  He was shot in the neck.  He would have benefited from an armored vehicle or a gun shield.  But in his case, it's questionable whether the neck protection that was available on the body armor would have done the job. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Talk about the complaints he had about the body armor that was issued to him and other troop members.  I understand that there were a lot of tradeoffs.  They were looking for scraps.  They just were not given the type of armor they needed. 

HART:  Well, when he went into Iraq in July 2003, with the 173rd Airborne, he was not issued plates.  They had run out.  He arrived in Iraq and was issued ones that were misfit. 

And basically, they hot-swapped.  The reason I know that he had body armor on when he was killed was because he had swapped it with someone who was not on the base. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And why was it necessary for him to swap it? 

HART:  Well, it turns out that at least a third of the soldiers in Iraq did not have the “sappy plates.” 

SCARBOROUGH:  Let me bring in Lieutenant Colonel Maginnis.

This report says that 80 percent of our Marines may have been saved from upper torso wounds if they had the right type of plates.  What do you make of this Pentagon report?  And why don't you think that those type of plates should be used? 

COLONEL ROBERT MAGINNIS (RET.), U.S. ARMY:  Well, the types of plates that are used, the ceramic plates, Joe, are ballistic plates.  And they have different characteristics that we can't describe here. 

But I looked at the study that is on the Web site at least and the 93 cases.  Of course, you gave the statistics and the breakdown.  Interesting that they recommend larger plates, ceramic pads for the shoulders, ceramic pads for sides.  That is putting a lot more weight on the young soldiers. 

And when you ask the soldiers on the ground—now, I have been there twice, Joe.  I was there in 2003.  They didn't issue me protective gear at that point.  But, this past fall, when I was there, I did have the Kevlar, as well as the body armor.  And every soldier now over there obviously has it.  We have learned a lot, clearly in three years. 

But the study is not, it's not done in a laboratory.  The reality is that we're fighting a real war.  And, unfortunately, if you burden soldiers down with every piece of protective armor that we would like to, they wouldn't be able to move in the irregular warfare that we're fighting; they would in fact probably endanger themselves based on what the soldiers are telling us far more than otherwise. 

HART:  That's not what the Marine study concluded, though.

It concluded that they needed to supplement an add to the armor.  And for 260 bucks, they could have added the side plating necessary to protect 300 dead Marines.  Those men needed that equipment. 

MAGINNIS:  You can put side plating on.  There's no question you can put side plating on. 

It limits your mobility.  And that's the point. I spent 24 years as an infantryman, so I have some credibility there.  And I understand how difficult it is to take a town or a house.  And you are constantly moving back and forth; speed, agility, perseverance are absolutely critical here. 

And unfortunately if you overburden our people with that type of equipment, often, you are going to cause them not only to get in trouble, but perhaps to getting wounded or killed even faster. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But if you look at this story, if you look at what's been unfolding, it says here that Marine commanders in the field have decided after looking at the studies that they are willing to give up a little flexibility to save lives, because they have decided, these Marine commanders, again, on the ground in Iraq, have decided that they can save a lot of their comrades' lives if they give them body armor, Colonel.  We can't second-guess the commanders in the field, can we? 

MAGINNIS:  Oh, I agree, Joe.  Yes.  And we're learning things all the time, Joe.   That's why we have up-armored the Humvees and the HETs and all the other vehicles over there. 

We have learned as we are fighting this insurgency.  They are, of course, adapting to us, too.  And they are trying to find vulnerabilities.  So, initially, these vulnerabilities were not there quite as prevalent. 

And we learned quickly and we tried to adjust accordingly. 


HART:  Well, but here's the problem, sir. 

If you have extra armor, you can take it off if you are dismounted. 

But a great majority of the casualties now are occurring in vehicles.  That's why shoulder protection is so important.  They are being shot from the side. 

And they are riding in vehicles much more than they were in, say, the Mekong Delta. 

MAGINNIS:  I agree.

HART:  If I could also add, the Marines decided to add this additional armor, and they did the right thing.  And I don't have a problem with them fielding imperfect armor to start with.  But they sat on the results for two years and they didn't spend the stinking $107,000 to get the study published from the pathology labs to get this armor fixed.  

I mean, 300 dead Marines occurred because of this.  And it needs to be fixed.  These troops need need the right damn equipment.

MAGINNIS:  You're right. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Colonel, listen.  And I think this is the biggest problem for so many parents out there with dead Marines, dead soldiers.  They are looking at it and they are saying, well, we're spending billions and billions of dollars on this war, a war that I support. A war that I believe is just.  But at the same time, for just a small amount of money, if they had started this in 2003, 2004, they could have saved a lot of lives. 

MAGINNIS:  Joe, I have ridden around there in a Humvee.  I know what it's like. 

And I certainly want to give the commander all the discretion possible.  We need to give them the side armor and so forth.  I'm talking about, when you are dismounted, like a lot of infantrymen are in the Sunni Triangle and Ramadi and Al Qaim And so forth. You're going house to house; if you have all that equipment on, it really does burden you down. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But, Colonel, give them the choice.  They haven't been given the choice because they haven't had it. 

MAGINNIS:  Well, some of them have, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  A small amount have. 

MAGINNIS:  We are catching up.

I agree that perhaps we were not as aggressive early on, on this.  We have learned lessons.  And now the commanders are adjusting accordingly.  War is, quite frankly, hell.  And they are learning their lessons.  It's unfortunate.  I know some young people that have been killed over there as well, some friends of mine. 

And, so, we have to learn as we're going along.  Keep in mind, we're fighting in Afghanistan.  You try to fight with all that equipment on at 10,000 feet, Joe, you are not going to do it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  It's all about options, though.  Obviously, in some situations, our troops should have the option of doing it.  And again, this isn't me talking.  You have been there.  I haven't yet.  I want to get over there. 

But the Marine commanders on the ground are saying, they need this body armor. 

MAGINNIS:  Well, they should have it then. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, unfortunately, Mr. Hart, I have got to say, this is something I was complaining about a year-and-a-half ago.  This is not like it snuck up on them.  They have ordered 28,000 I guess new pieces of body armor, and started in September; only 2,000 have been delivered because there's such a back order.  Are we going to be talking about this a year-and-a-half from now? 

HART:  Yes. 

It's about priorities.  It's not about the amount of money we are talking about.  It's about the priorities.  And the fact of the matter is, unless the public is aware of this problem and willing to do something about it, to press Congress, to press the National Guard. 

SCARBOROUGH: But George Bush, the president I voted for, was talking about John Kerry voting against body armor a year ago, and we still don't have the body armor over there a year later. 

MAGINNIS:  Joe, well, I hope you go over there in the summertime, when it's 130 degrees.  You put on that 100 and so many pounds of weight. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, what about now?  Our kids are being killed now. 

MAGINNIS:  Now is the difference.  If you are riding around on a Humvee, that's a different proposition. 

And they certainly should do everything possible to give them enough armor.  However, when you are on the ground like the most of those young infantrymen in the 101st or the Marine Corps—or the Marine task force out there, you have to give them the flexibility not to have to be burdened down, because you just physically can't do a lot of that.

SCARBOROUGH:  And they can't have that flexibility if they don't have the protection. 

HART:  Exactly right.  Well, these young men are not cannon fodder. 

MAGINNIS:  You're right.

HART:  They deserve the best and they deserve it as fast as we can get it to them.  Is that clear?  And sitting on a study for two years is not accomplishing that objective.

MAGINNIS:  It wasn't two years.  It was only six months ago that study ended, the 30th of June, 2005.  I have got the copy of the report. 

HART:  No.  Sir, it ended that late because they didn't fund it for a year-and-a-half because they wouldn't pony up.  I would have given them my death gratuity to give them the stinking $107,000 get that thing done.

MAGINNIS:  The commanders are doing their absolute best in this environment.  They are providing what they can.

HART:  The commanders are doing a great job.  It's the screw-ups at the Pentagon in procurement that are messing things up.  It's procurement, sir.  And you know it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  The bottom line is, friends, when I started writing my book back in I think it was the fall of 2003, I was complaining about misspent priorities, complaining, again, the fall of 2003, about how our troops weren't getting the type of body armor that they needed; 12 months later, the president of the United States got reelected by attacking John Kerry for voting against an $87 billion budget which included body armor. 

Here we are, what, 15, 16 months later.  We're still talking about how our troops are not getting the body armor that they need to protect their lives.  And when you have Marines, an 80 percent figure thrown out there, that 80 percent of our Marines that have been killed over in Iraq with certain injuries would have been alive today if Congress had listened to parents and troops back in 2003, 2004, and 2005, my God, how long is it is it going to take for Washington to wake up and put our troops first?

It's unbelievable.  I will tell you, we're going to stay on this.  We're going to keep fighting the Pentagon and we're going to get the answers that you deserve, that our troops deserve and their families deserve.