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U.S. troops turning to civilian supplier for combat vests, medical kits

A civilian military depot in California is trying to plug soldier-reported gaps in U.S. supply lines literally on a shoestring budget — by providing bootlaces along with tourniquets, tracheotomy tools, goggles and other gear to service members in Afghanistan who say they are increasingly strapped for basic equipment.

But TroopsDirect, a nonprofit with one full-time employee and a small squadron of corporate backers, calls the latest request sent from soldiers soon to be in harm’s ways a disturbing first: They say they need key materials to protect them in a combat situation. 

An Army unit slated to deploy to Afghanistan to clear roadside bombs has asked TroopsDirect for 30 special vests designed to carry armored plates because, according to the unit’s commanding officer, the Army will only outfit half of his 60 members with those vests.

The reason: Defense Department budget constraints, the unit’s sergeant told Aaron Negherbon, president and founder of TroopsDirect.

“That’s just not going to work,” Negherbon said. “Thirty lives are at risk. If one of the guys died because of lack of equipment, who will then say anything about budget cuts? What’s the value of a human life or a human limb?

“A sergeant I spoke to, who is under the company commander in this unit, said there was a budget issue tied to this,” Negherbon added. “To that end, he said: ‘If this was a few years ago, we could have gotten anything that we wanted. Now, it’s a make-do kind of thing.’ The company commander even put in an additional appeal (with the Army) and never heard back on it. So they reached out to us.”

TroopsDirect shared with NBC News its communications with the unit member who requested the 30 vests. NBC News agreed not to reveal the unit’s location or name to protect its leaders from potential discipline for going outside the Army’s supply chain.

The vests eventually will be fitted with armored plates that are slipped into Velcro pouches inside the nylon fabric. The unit already possesses the necessary plates. But, without the vests, 30 of the men would have no way to cloak themselves in the armor, Negherbon said, unless they were to duct tape the plates to their uniforms or bodies. An order verification form, obtained by NBC News, shows that Darley Defense in Itasca, Ill., will ship the vests — at a total cost of $1706.89 — to the nonprofit’s headquarters in San Ramon, Calif., at the end of February.

“I fully support what Aaron and TroopsDirect are doing,” said Jeff Freeman, the Darley salesman who sold the vests. “What is strange is when these troops are deploying, they may not be deploying with enough gear to support them for their 6-month, 9-month or 14-month deployment. At some point, they then have to turn to TroopsDirect, or to (their branch’s) supply system, to fulfill those needs. I don't know if that’s a budget issue or a planning issue.”

NBC News contacted the Army's media relations division on Tuesday afternoon, seeking comment on the work being conducted by TroopsDirect. An Army spokesman had not responded to that interview request as of Wednesday morning.

Last year, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced his plan to cut almost $500 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years, focusing on shrinking ground forces in the Army and Marine Corps.

With the U.S. military drawing down in Afghanistan — and with 34,000 more troops scheduled to return to home soil during the next year — the requests for needed gear have simultaneously picked up at TroopsDirect, according to Negherbon.

Last month, he heard from the commander of an Army mortar unit outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, who complained that the ear protection donned by his soldiers was so worn, some men were having their eardrums blown out by weapon percussions and were bleeding from their ears, Negherbon said. He’s pulled together an order of ear-protection devices for that unit.

When combat medics waited more than four weeks to be resupplied, TroopsDirect gathered stretchers, stethoscopes, syringes and gauze rolls in a few hours and shipped the material overseas. 

According to GuideStar, a charity-monitoring website, TroopsDirect reported $350,858 in income (contributions) in 2011 against $209,419 in expenses — including $27,466 spent on administrative costs. Its corporate contributors include Gatorade, PowerBar, REI, American Trucking Associations, Darley Defense and 18 other companies.

Founded in 2010, the nonprofit self-reports that 87 percent of its total organizational expenditures go directly to program expenses and that it already has shipped more 60,000 pounds of equipment to service members overseas.

“We’re seeing a lot more of this one-off kind of stuff — like vests — that once was available and now isn’t,” Negherbon said, adding that troops who reach out to him have reported that some of their equipment needs are budget related and some are caused by logistical glitches arising in the Afghanistan drawdown.

“I will hear things like: ‘We’re in the south and our supply chain is in the north and because they’ve closed down so many distribution facilities and are retrograding at a rapid rate, we can’t get anything anymore,’ " Negherbon said.

“I can see telling them to ‘make do’ without a certain type of pouch. But these things (like vests and ear-protection requests) are something I’m seeing a lot more of. We just sent a bunch of medic packs to a Marine Special Operations unit. They were issued stuff that was ineffective for a medic out in the dirt tending to the wounded.”

Freeman’s company began selling to TroopsDirect in April of 2012 and has done deals on helmet lights and gloves, he said. 

“There’s probably two sides to that story,” said Freeman, a veteran. “At times, the Army (members) may use him as an ‘easy button.’ If they know they’re going to have difficult time getting something out there, maybe they go to him because they’ve used him in the past and he’s provided such great customer service to them that it might be a little easier for them to use him.”