Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2003 / 6 Elul, 5764
Is a soldier's life worth more than $650?
Suzanne Werfelman is a mother and a teacher who has been shopping for individual body armor. This is not in response to threats from her elementary-class students in Sciota, Pa.; it's a desperate attempt to protect her son in Iraq.
Like many other U.S. service members in Iraq, her son was given a Vietnam-era flak jacket that cannot stop the type of weapons used today. It appears that parents across the country are now purchasers of body armor because of the failure of the military to supply soldiers with modern vests.
Werfelman's son, Army Spc. Richard Murphy, is a military policeman in Iraq. He was also one of my law students last year before being sent off for a 20-month stint. Upon their arrival, members of Murphy's unit were shocked to learn that they would be given the old Vietnam-era vests rather than the modern Interceptor vest. (They were also given unarmored Humvees, which are vulnerable to even small-arms fire.) Military officials admit that the standard flak jacket could not reliably stop a bullet, including AK-47 ammunition, used in Iraq and the most common ammunition in the world.
Developed in the late 1990s, the Interceptor vest is made of layered sheets of Kevlar with pockets in front and back for ceramic plates to protect vital organs. These vests — one-third lighter than the old ones — have stopped machine-gun bullets, shrapnel and other ordnance.
They can mean the difference between living and dying, which was made all too clear to Sgt. Zachariah Byrd, a soldier with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who was shot four times with AK-47 bullets (twice in the chest and twice in his arms) when his unit was ambushed. The vest protected his chest and he survived. Byrd had been issued a standard flak jacket and, if he had been wearing it during the attack, he'd probably be dead. However, at the beginning of the patrol, his buddy who was driving that night gave his Interceptor vest to Byrd — a passing kindness that saved Byrd's life.
Others don't have the Interceptor option — including some of the soldiers in Murphy's unit who are still wearing flak jackets. Congress has received reports of soldiers killed while wearing the old flak jackets. One from a mother related how three soldiers in her son's unit were killed while wearing the outmoded vests. The unit reportedly had only 30 modern vests for 120 men. Army Staff Sgt. Dave Harris wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes that related how his friend, Mike Quinn, was killed in Fallouja. Quinn's unit didn't have enough vests, so he gave his to a young soldier. The decision saved the young soldier's life, but resulted in Quinn's death when he was shot.
The greatest shortfall in vests and plates appear to be National Guard and reserve units, though full-time soldiers like Byrd also have reported shortages. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed last week that it would not be until December before there were enough plates for all of our people in Iraq.
Murphy's reserve unit, which initially had no modern jackets, was eventually given some Interceptor vests weeks after they arrived in Iraq, but even then the new vests were missing the essential ceramic plates. That is when Werfelman went out and bought some plates for $650 — more than her weekly salary — and sent them to her son so he'd have basic protection. Workers at one armor company she called said that they had been deluged with calls from parents trying to buy vests and plates for their sons and daughters overseas.
Of course, many soldiers do not have even empty Interceptors. When they have received plates from home, they have reportedly used duct tape to attach them to the backs of their flak jackets.
This is a dangerous practice, according to William "Butch" Hancock, who recently retired from the Army after 30 years and currently consults for Point Blank, a body armor manufacturer. He says that some of these plates are designed for front pockets and will not work in such circumstances.
In speeches, President Bush has attributed the record federal budget deficit, in part, to his insistence that U.S. soldiers have the resources they need: "My attitude is, any time we put one of our soldiers in harm's way, we're going to spend whatever is necessary to make sure they have the best training, the best support and the best possible equipment." When Bush later taunted gunmen in Iraq to "bring it on," many GIs must have nervously tugged at their obsolete flak jackets.
For many GIs, Iraq appears to be a strictly BYOB war — Bring Your Own Bulletproofs.
The shortages come down to money and priorities. In 1998, Interceptors were available and issued to armies around the world. However, the U.S. military treats the replacement of body armor as any other "general-issue item." Thus, five years ago the military brass decided to implement a one-for-one exchange of new-for-old vests over a 10-year period. The military recently moved to increase production. The belated priority given to replacing the vests is particularly shocking considering their performance in Afghanistan, where they are credited with saving the lives of 29 soldiers. This is why American mothers are mailing armored plates rather than the traditional baked goods.
It is unclear how we got into this predicament, but it is worthy of a congressional investigation — particularly when it comes to the failure to equip all military units with the modern vests before the Iraq war. After all, the military brass appears to be spending in other areas.
For example, the Air Force announced that it had cut a deal with Boeing to lease airplane tankers for billions more than it would cost to buy them outright. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Air Force will waste almost $6 billion by leasing the planes rather than buying them. Congress is looking into the deal. By comparison, outfitting all of the 150,000 soldiers in Iraq with Interceptor vest plates would cost less than $97 million at retail prices. Because many have already been outfitted, the actual cost would be a small fraction of this amount. Congress should insist that body armor be designated a "sensitive item" and that every soldier be given an Interceptor with plates without delay.
One approach might guarantee results. Any member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who does not secure such vests for his service should be required to sit at an outdoor cafe in Tikrit and drink a cup of tea while wearing an old flak jacket. That might focus the general staff on the problem more concretely.
Once the government makes sure all our soldiers receive vests, only one thing would remain: Someone should send Suzanne Werfelman $650 and an apology
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington
and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Jonathan Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. Click to visit his website. Comment by clicking here.
08/26/03:One justice wields too much power on today's Supreme Court. It's time to make the top bench much bigger
08/11/03: Don't let jobs grow on family trees
06/26/03: A Ruling That Only Goldilocks Could Love; We still don't know how much weight to give race in college admissions
06/24/03: 'Educating' Congress at the hands of lobbyists
06/12/03: Crooked arm of the law
06/10/03: Defense on lay-away
05/23/03: Innocence doesn't pay, either
05/15/03: A see-no-evil parole system
05/08/03: An American Gulag?
05/01/03: CUNY Law gives grads a cynical parting gift
04/22/03: Congress Must Send Spammers a Message
04/16/03: End Apartheid in the State Prisons
04/07/03: NBC's sacking of Peter Arnett over a critical analysis plays well in Baghdad
03/07/03: Rights on the Rack: Alleged torture in terror war imperils U.S. standards of humanity
02/25/03: How democracy could clear our snowy streets
02/11/03: Sanity and Justice Slipping Away
01/28/03: Quit horsing around, senator
01/14/03: Public Payroll: a Family Affair; Nepotism in Washington poses a threat to institutional integrity
01/09/03: DARPA and democracy
12/24/02: The 13th juror
12/19/02: Back to the admissions morass
12/10/02: Pro-Choice at Expense of Free Speech; NOW case against abortion protester may backfire
12/02/02: A cruel bait and switch for vets
11/15/02: Junk justice
11/07/02: OUR second-class soldiers
10/30/02: 'Quirin' revisited: The dark history of a military tribunal
10/22/02: Un-American Arrests: Mass detainments of the innocent may be the ultimate form of crowd control, but the tactic is unconstitutional
10/16/02: Reverse pawn shops? Broke state officials across the country have been looking for businesses to buy their assets at a fraction of their worth to pay for budget shortfalls
10/08/02: A legal tattoo hullabaloo
10/02/02: Gagged justice sets dangerous precedent
09/25/02: The Great Salmon Rose Caper
09/17/02: Reparations: A Scam Cloaked in Racial Pain
09/12/02: This country's hidden strength
09/04/02: 1st Amendment protects even the ugliest among us
08/28/02: A secret court goes public
08/20/02: I defended Ashcroft during his nomination; he's become a constitutional menace
08/07/02: San Francisco embracing states-rights
07/31/02: Who needs Jenny Craig when you can have Johnnie Cochran?
07/22/02: The meaning of justice and the madness of Zacarias Moussauoi
07/16/02: The President vs. the Presidency
07/08/02: How one woman's whims dictates the rights of millions
07/02/02: Just say 'no' to extracurricular activities
06/24/02: Missing Ted Bundy
06/14/02: DESTROYING A FAMILY TO SAVE IT
06/10/02: A comedy of eros06/14/02:
05/31/02: Beyond the 'reformed FBI' hype
05/23/02: Do we really need a Federal Marriage Amendment?
05/19/02: No "battlefield detainee" should leave home without a U.S. birth certificate
05/10/02: The perfect constitutional storm
04/26/02: 'Slave of Allah' wounds justice
04/12/02: The importance of being nameless
04/05/02: The adjusted value of justice
03/18/02: How Clinton got off: A law professor's take
03/11/02: Profiling and the terrorist lottery
03/05/02: Yes, Sharpton, there was a failure of justice
02/28/02: The Lay of the land
02/14/02: Living in constitutional denial
02/05/02: Legal Lesson for Afghanistan: War's Not a Slip-and-Fall Case
01/25/02: Sever "Jihad Johnny"'s ties to his homeland
01/21/02: "Out of sight, out of mind," but they're still prisoners
01/14/02: Your papers, please!
01/07/02: Prescription for disaster
12/18/01: Madison and the Mujahedeen
12/07/01: In the U.S., espionage crime is easy to understand but difficult to prove
11/19/01: What type of 'creature' would defend bin Laden?
11/19/01: Could bin Laden be acquitted in a trial?
10/28/01: The ultimate sign of the different times in which we are living
10/25/01: Al-Qaida produces killers, not thinkers
09/28/01: The Boxer rebellion and the war against terrorism
08/31/01: Bring back the silent Condit
08/27/01: Working out the body politic
© 2002, Jonathan Turley