Body Armor: Open Letter to General Conway

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April 21, 2009

Commandant of the Marine Corps

General James T. Conway

Headquarters USMC

2 Navy Annex (CMC)

Washington, D.C.  20380-1775

Dear General,

I would like to thank for your response to my letter dated 03-28-08, as well, as the time you took out of your demanding schedule. I know you and I are the same in many ways as acknowledged in your letter, but yet very different. The Command you lead and the Stars you wear are one of great responsibilities. The tasks that are put before you from day to day are not easy ones, but you have within you a Drive and Conviction to push forward no matter what, that’s why you are there.

I, in my life, do not lead a Command, but I do have a Drive and Conviction for the Troops of all branches, and my sons. When I started writing these letters back in 2006 it has never been my intent to dishonor any branch in our military or to be a thorn in anybody’s side. It has always been my outlook in life that one person can make a difference and I live by that rule. The objective here is to protect ALL the Troops with the very best Body Armor.

The first objective was to get NASA involved and this is not to say, just to kick it around and talk about it at meetings. When my wife and I went to Marine Corps Systems Command at Quantico Va. in 2007 to meet with Brigadier General Brogan’s staff. I gave my concerns, thoughts and ideas, which included NASA. I was told they had never contacted NASA on this issue but were going to do it as a result of this meeting, which I thought to be a positive response.  The purpose is, to form and make One Department within NASA solely for R&D for Body Armor ONLY, and nothing else. The second is the technology of liquid body armor by Dr. Norman Wagner, to be used in the making of the soft body armor as well as the helmets. The third is to get the President, the Senate, and Congress to fund such a project which I have found to be like climbing Mount Everest, backwards, but I still have not given up on this concept, nor will I ever.

Over the years of writing to the political machine in Washington, it has been disappointing at times, but not enough to prevent me from continuing with my writing. I have found that some are disconnected with the needs of the Military and their families on the issue of Body Armor in particular.  There are some that have no idea what anguish, pain and many sleepless nights the families endure when their loved ones are deployed. But yet, they still sit on committees in which they hold the power to make a difference, and yet, they do not act, or act quickly enough when called upon.

I have found that the subject of the military with most people in general, have no idea on what anguish truly means, and don’t care. Unless you walk in our shoes, can you truly understand what our Troops and their Military families go through and the great scarifies they make every day for this great nation.

  When we have designs, redesigns and recall’s of Body Armor for several years, without making any great strides in the area of weight and protection, this is why I do, what I do, and why the families are so concerned! Have I set the bar too high for Washington on what I ask of them? I think not! This request is not one that can’t be quickly reached; we must move more rapidly and think outside the box on this one!

I truly understand the willingness of our military leaders to unfailingly fight for the best, but my concerns are not so much with the military but with the committees that tie the hands of the military on so many issues. I realize that I have made no friends, in Washington. Some may even hate me for the writing of these letters to the military and Washington, but that’s alright. If I can make a difference and save one life, then I can look in the mirror and say it was a good day and it was all worth it, no matter what people think of me! As my 1st Sergeant always said, “Respect is not given, it is Earned”, and the Troops have earned my respect many times over, past and present.

I will continue the push forward on my requests, as so many lives are on the line, so bare with me on my letters, e-mails and phone calls; I do this on behalf of all the TROOPS.

I look forward to hearing from you again and thank you for your time and Godspeed to you General, and maybe someday our paths will cross.

Americans never quit.

General Douglas Macarthur

US WWII general & war hero (1880 – 1964)

Sincerely,

Michael J. F. Bucca Sr.

Hanover, Massachusetts 

“Veteran and Father of a proud Marine”

SFTT Editor’s Note:   This is an open letter from Michael Bucca, a “veteran and father of a proud Marine,” to General James T. Conway, Commondant of the Marine Corps.   While Mr. Bucca’s suggestions to engage NASA do not necessarily represent the position of SFTT, we do agree that seeking better protective gear and combat equipment for our frontline troops should become a National Priority.   Let’s raise our voices to support these brave young men and women who defend our freedoms.   Join SFTT and add your voice to Mr. Bucca’s to get our frontline troops the best available combat equipment.

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Interceptor OTV Body Armor Cost Lives, An Internal USMC Reports Shows

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The Interceptor Outer Tactical Vest was designed for use with SAPI plates and replaces the Personnel Armor System, Ground Troop Flak vest, more commonly known as the flak vest.

The “Marine Lethal Torso Injuries: Preliminary Findings 8/29/2005” was reportedly made to identify current weaknesses in the product, which was designed and fielded in the nearly billion-dollar joint US Army-USMC Interceptor program that created the controversial body armor.

Critics of the Interceptor body armor system complain it is bulky, poorly made, limits mobility, and incorporates a design that leaves the wearer vulnerable to gunshot and shrapnel wounds over large areas of the upper torso to limit production costs.

Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM) spokesman Sanford “Mack” McLaurin, although aware of the report, declined to comment on it, declaring “this information could be help to our enemies and put Marines and Soldiers in danger.” MARCORSYSCOM is the agency within the Marine Corps responsible for providing Marine Corps approved equipment to its war fighters.

Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Curry Keir, Army Public Affairs, Media Operations, was equally reticent in his Dec. 30 response to a recent DefenseWatch inquiry.

“We take operational security very seriously and will not discuss in public issues that may render any insight to the enemy on our capabilities; fielding plans; or tactics, techniques and procedures,” Keir said.

A skeptic might say the services’ sudden interest in security is more akin to closing the hen house door after the fox has entered than keeping sensitive information from the enemy. A DefenseWatch investigation begun last summer (See Is America’s Best Getting America’s Best series in DW archives) determined that the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick (SSC-Natick, Massachusetts), has known for at least several years that its in-house designed Interceptor body armor was not nearly as effective as other civilian body armor products already in production. The troops who wear the standard issue body armor are also well aware of its deficiencies. For more than two years DefenseWatch has received reports and complaints from Grunts in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Interceptor gear is lousy.

In late October DW began receiving reports for war fighters in Iraq that the American Armed Forces Network (AFN) was warning its radio listeners there that the Coalition had received intelligence about insurgents snipers that were being trained to aim at areas of vulnerability between Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI plates) – hard composite armor plate – where Coalition war fighters wearing Interceptor armor are particularly vulnerable. War correspondent and popular blogger Michael Yon confirmed the reports in an email to DefenseWatch after hearing them broadcast in Mosul.

Many war fighters told DefenseWatch they used their own money to buy superior body armor systems available on the open market despite DOD claims that the Interceptor body armor is the best money can buy. Those warriors reported the Interceptor body armor is frequently ill-fitting, falls apart with rugged use, decreases in protective capability with age, and leaves the wearer vulnerable to side and shoulder wounds that could prove fatal. The findings of the August 29 report supports every contention the agitated war fighters made. So did evidence introduced in several civilian court cases brought against all three of the Interceptor body armor manufacturers in unrelated lawsuits by disgruntled employees, civilian police agencies and the US Justice Department.

The DOD and the U.S. Army have both declined to comment to numerous DefenseWatch inquiries made since September seeking to discover whether senior Pentagon officials knew that Interceptor OTV body armor was ineffective, and what the Pentagon intended to do about the Interceptor problems if it did. US Army Public Affairs Chief Brigadier General Vincent Brooks went so far as to accuse DefenseWatch of “clearly having an agenda” and “not [being] interested in productive discussions on this topic.”

On November 17, 2005 Army spokesman John P. Boyce, Jr., following up on Brooks’ acid comments, declined to answer a DW inquiry seeking to know whether the Interceptor program was going to be cancelled after the current contracts have been completed. Two months ago DW received several still unconfirmed reports from credible sources within the body armor industry that the ill-conceived Interceptor program was under severe scrutiny by the US Air Force, Marine Corps and Army because of the numerous complaints its members have forwarded up the chain of command. Those sources continue to insist the Interceptor program will be terminated at the end of the current production run.

Instead of answering the question Boyce wrote on behalf of the US Army that:

“… the U.S. Army fielded more than 873,270 Outer Tactical Vests, so you may definitely say we are still using Outer Tactical Vests as well as personal body-armor technologies to protect our Soldiers. Soldier protection is the highest priority for the Army. As new technologies emerge, the Army aggressively works with industry to develop, test, produce and rapidly field the best possible equipment, and get it into the hands of our Soldiers.”

Meanwhile the Marine Corps was very quietly seeking answers to the problems with Interceptor armor that Marines encountered while wearing it in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. On November 22, 2005 MARCORSYSCOM issued a “Solicitation” for interested manufacturers to bid for the opportunity to manufacture an improved design of the Interceptor OTV body armor currently issued to most service members serving in the Global War on Terror. The request was placed in the Federal Business Opportunities website without any public announcement.

The bid says the Marines are “seeking market research, potential sources, and best practice information towards designing, developing, and buying a replacement item to provide torso ballistic protection with integrated and scalable load-carrying capabilities for individual Marines.

“The OTV, along with ballistic protective inserts, is commonly known as the USMC’s very successful “Interceptor” system,” the bid request explained. “The currently used Outer Tactical Vest (OTV) portion was developed in the late 1990’s. It consists of soft armor (i.e., fragmentation protection) covering the torso, groin and neck and can carry ceramic plates to protect against rifle fire. The OTV, however, is not designed – but is being used for – carrying equipment and items during USMC missions. Consequently, the OTV lacks efficient state-of-the-art load carrying capabilities and technologies that limit the user’s effectiveness.”

In his written response McLaurin gave a biographical account of the development of the Interceptor system, adding that “since the OTV was not designed to carry the excessive weight of a Marine’s combat load, we developed and procured a limited number of Assault Load Carriers (ALC)…”

“This modular system will allow Marines to adapt the OTV to the threat they face. However, Marines in combat wanted to attach their MOLLE pouches (ammunition and equipment carriers) directly to the OTV instead of using the ALC,” McLaurin continued. “We also developed and procured the Fighting Load Carrier (FLC), designed to carry ammunition magazines, the first aid kit, canteens and other combat equipment.”

Almost as an afterthought McLaurin concluded, “Consequently, since Marines in combat have identified the need for additional area of coverage, we developed and fielded the Side Small Arms Protective Inserts (S-SAPI) to protect deployed Marines.”

The Marine’s development of the Side Small Arms Protective Inserts (S-SAPI) modification corrects one of the most glaring problems inherent to the Interceptor system, several experts said. Natick’s failure to recognize early on the need for axillary protection led to the unnecessary deaths of the”nearly 23%” of the Marines” who “might have benefited from protection along the mid-axillary line of the lateral chest, ” according to the August 29 report. In laymen’s terms, the mid-axillary line of the lateral chest identifies the sides of the body’s upper torso.

McLaurin added that the November 22 solicitation for bids “is a result of Spiral Development on the OTV” and not a complete replacement program for the Interceptor system.

The summary of the solicitation request confirms his assessment:

“The OTV needs to be redesigned to carry a Marine’s assault load (i.e. magazines, water, grenades, etc.). It is to use state of the art load carriage techniques to optimally distribute the load over the torso. The contemplated integrated OTV will combine the capabilities to carry the ballistic protection and combat load. The system will use the current Small Arms Protective Insert (SAPI) plates.

Several representatives of body armor manufacturers recently told DefenseWatch they have heard reports that US Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker has given a green light to Army planners to begin looking for a suitable replacement for the Interceptor body armor system.

Patriot Materials Company President Mike Henderson, a former Special operations soldier, said his Sanford, North Carolina-based company is actively seeking a shot at promoting its body armor products to the Pentagon at this time. Patriot already has contracts to up armor all the Army’s medium and heavy-duty trucks used in Iraq at its Kuwait support facility and also sells personal body armor to special operations operators, he said.

Mark Carey, Patriot’s director of overseas operations, and a retired Spec Ops master sergeant, agreed that the word is already out across the industry that the Interceptor program will be scrapped as soon as the current contracts are filled. His assessment was seconded by Pinnacle Armor’s Paul Chopra, a retired US Army Special Operations aviator, and two other manufacturers who declined to go on record. Pinnacle make Dragon Skin body armor, which DefenseWatch examined closely in its America’s Best series.

Both manufacturers who spoke on the record said they would actively seek the new business when it becomes available and that their companies already produced body armor vastly superior to the Interceptor OTV system.

Since last May the Army and Marine Corps have recalled more than 23,000 body armor vests because they failed ballistic requirements when they were manufactured in 1999 and 2000. Many of those vests may now be in the war zone. About 5,000 were recalled in May, 2005 and 18,000 last November 16, according to Pentagon officials. All of the vests involved were produced by the same manufacturer, Point Blank Body Armor Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla., under contract to the Marine Corps and the Army. The Marines Corps has repeatedly assured its war fighters the recalls did not involve safety issues and were merely manufacturing flaws that affected size and quality control – not bullet and shrapnel stopping capabilities.

In January, 2005 Point Blank’s CEO, a Long Island, New York businessman, gained a bit of notoriety for giving his 12-year-old daughter a $10 million party at a swank New York eatery. Brooks is the CEO of DHB Industries, the parent company of Point Blank, which makes the vests that were recalled in 2005. In 2004 Brooks exercised DHB stock options worth almost $70 million and at year’s end (Dec. 29, 2004), sold 5 million of his 11 million shares of common stock for a whopping $106.4 million, according to public records. Soon after the value of DHB stock began to decline.

As early as July 19, 2004, according to memos originally obtained by the Army Times newspaper, the Marine Corps found “major quality assurance deficiencies within Point Blank.” One month later, on August 24, 2004, the military rejected two orders from Point Blank after tests revealed that the vests did not meet safety requirements.

Faced with a severe shortage of body armor the Army decided that nine Point Blank orders that did not meet safety requirements would be sent to troops overseas anyway, according to court records obtained by DW from an unrelated Point Blank labor dispute heard in a Florida court. On May 3, 2005 Point Blank hired retired four-star Army Gen. Larry Ellis to lead the beleaguered company. On May 4, 2005, the U.S. Marine Corps recalled 5,277 Interceptor vests manufactured by Point Blank Body Armor. On July 20 Point Blank received an additional $10.1 million contract from the U.S. government. In November another18, 000 vests were recalled.

Another Interceptor body armor manufacturer, formerly known as Second Chance Body Armor, Inc., is currently under investigation by the Justice Department for fraud for knowingly selling body armor that can’t stop bullets from killing its wearers. Second Chance was the leading body armor supplier to the American Armed Forces three years ago. It has since declared bankruptcy in Michigan and gone out of business.

Standing in the wings to pick up the slack was Armor Holdings, Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla, the current leading manufacturer and distributor of body armor for the U.S. military, On August 2, 2005 Armor Holdings announced that it had completed acquiring all of the domestic assets of Second Chance after the company declared bankruptcy following charges of fraud in its domestic operations. The announcement followed on the heels of a July 13 press release from Armor Holdings trumpeting that it had become the “exclusive provider” to replace up to 156,000 defective vests manufactured by Second Chance Body Armor and issued to American war fighters while it led the pack of armor manufacturers milking the cash cow conceived and fattened in the wake of the sudden need for body armor to fight the Global War on Terror.

Scott O’Brien, President of the Armor Holdings Products Division, commented in a September 2 press release that, “We are delighted to welcome Second Chance to the Armor Holdings team, and we believe this transaction creates a fresh start for Second Chance.”

Armor Holdings paid $45 million in cash for the assets of Second Chance, “including substantially all intellectual property, free and clear of all liens, claims and encumbrances, and assumed certain trade liabilities,” according to the Sept. 2 press release. An attorney close to the Second Chance debacle said Armor Holdings acquisition of the former body armor manufacturer’s assets left the American taxpayer – as usual -holding the bag for the cost of the failed equipment.

Despite the multitude of problems the Interceptor program has encountered the US Army apparently still stands by its product.

“The Army has made several improvements in the area of Soldier Protection equipment to the Outer Tactical Vests and to the Small Arms Protective Inserts.” Keir explained in his Dec. 30th email to DefenseWatch that promised a more complete explanation was still forthcoming. “In response to the changing battlefield conditions and as new technologies emerge; the Army will continue to develop improvements to Soldier Protection equipment that enhances survivability and mobility. Soldier protection is the highest priority for the U.S. Army,”

Keir’s comments prove what Miguel de Cervantes claimed in Don Quixote in the 17th Century is still relevant today: “The proof of the pudding is the eating.”

Bon Appetit!

DefenseWatch Editor Nathaniel R. “Nat” Helms is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, long-time journalist and war correspondent living in Missouri.

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