MARGARET WARNER: As U.S. casualties have mounted in Iraq so too has criticism of the body armor supplied to soldiers and Marines. It's called interceptor body armor and its design has been modified five times since the war began.
But insurgents appear to have figured out how to exploit gaps and weak points in the troops' protective vests.
Some members of Congress have jumped on the issue, including Democratic Congressman John Murtha when he called for a rapid timetable for withdraw.
But the Pentagon has defended the level of protection for American troops. The latest turn in the controversy came from a veterans group called Soldiers for the Truth published preliminary findings of a secret Pentagon study of 93 Marine deaths from torso wounds over two years.
According to the New York Times, the study found as many as 80 percent of those Marines could have survived if they had had extra body armor. For example, the study said as many as 42 percent of the Marine casualties who died from isolated torso injuries could have been prevented with improved protection in the areas surrounding the plated areas of the vest.
The Pentagon responded last week by stating it will continue seeking improvements to body armor, but, quote, will not discuss in public sensitive issues that may render any insight to the enemy.
Today Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner called Pentagon officials, including a soldier and a Marine wearing body armor, to a closed-door hearing on the issue.
MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CATTO, U.S. Marine Corps: We're fielding the best body armor and protective equipment available we think in the world today. And as we have the opportunities to upgrade the equipment, we do that.
MARGARET WARNER: Last September the Marine Corps ordered 28,000 sets of side plates to offer additional protection for its troops in Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: Do U.S. troops in Iraq have adequate body armor? For that, we turn to two former military officers who are wearing alternative varieties of protected vests: Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis served in Vietnam. He's currently a consultant to the Pentagon and receives regular briefings there. He's wearing the body armor commonly worn by American troops in Iraq. Retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Roger Charles is president of Soldiers for the Truth, the advocacy group that obtained and published the Pentagon study of Marine deaths from torso wounds. He's wearing one more expensive alternative advocated by some Pentagon critics.
We invited the Army and Marine Corps to participate in this discussion, but they declined.
Welcome, gentlemen. Thank you for coming in.
And Col. Charles, let's start with you. Why did your group publish this, expose this on your Web site?
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): We had quite a bit of communication from groups in theater -- Afghanistan and Iraq expressing strong dissatisfaction with the current body armor for various reasons.
It began to appear like there might be a story. We decided to pursue it beginning in September, and along the way picked this part of the study up. We did not get the complete study.
MARGARET WARNER: Now the study only looked at a certain kind of death: That is, torso wounds. Were you able to extrapolate from that to say how many of the overall American deaths in Iraq might have been prevented with different body armor?
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): We did not do that but the New York Times in their piece which aired -- which was published last Saturday in their newspaper did extrapolate.
I know the reporter, Michael Moss, that did this work and very confident in his meticulous research, and he said that over 300 deaths, if you included the Army, killed in action were probably -- possibly prevented had we had the better body armor.
MARGARET WARNER: So 300 of the more than 2,200 deaths.
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): Right.
MARGARET WARNER: What was your reaction to the study, Col. Maginnis?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, you know, Margaret, the battlefield is not a controlled environment. It's not an experimental lab.
Yes, there's no doubt that soldiers were killed and they were killed because there were gaps in body armor. But it's hard to tell from the study whether or not all of them were wearing the same body armor and a lot of the other details that you'd want to have in trying to make this decision.
MARGARET WARNER: And they did say these were preliminary results.
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): They did.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, now, Col. Maginnis, you are wearing what American troops wear in the field. Could you stand for us and just tell us what this is and how it protects the soldier wearing it.
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Okay. This is the outer protective vest, about eight pounds.
MARGARET WARNER: This is called the --
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): The interceptor body armor but it's the vest.
And then you have inside both the front and the back 11-pound ballistic ceramic, you know, protector -- small arms protection inserts.
Now we have a deltoid shoulder protector here. They weigh about five pounds. Now the Army soon will come out with side panels that weigh about three-and-a-half pounds that are ballistic plates just like the front. And then of course you have things on the neck and in the groin.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Col. Charles, so what is wrong with this? What did the study show? Where were the vulnerabilities in this vest according to this study?
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): Well, the major vulnerabilities were in this area here. And I'd like to point out this is not a ballistic defense piece of gear. This is protection against shrapnel but it's not the same as this hard plate that's in the front and the rear.
So there is no ballistic plate protection here, so this is an area of concern -- this whole area here and then around the throat and neck.
MARGARET WARNER: Stay standing both of you, please. Col. Charles, you're wearing one more expensive alternative advocated by some. What is it and why is it better? It actually looks skimpier, if I may use that word, than what Col. Maginnis is wearing.
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): Well, first of all, we did not bring the shoulder attachments which are available.
But this is an outfit called Pinnacle Armor, produces -- the trade name is Dragon Skin. And these are small titanium ceramic plates that are positioned in kind of a fish scale approach.
And it gives you protection from there to here, and then from the rear there back. There's about an inch-and-a-half on each side where there is no protection as compared to, you know, about a foot on the side on here.
There also obviously is vulnerability here and around the throat and so on. But, overall it's about 140 percent more area of protection with this system than the interceptor.
MARGARET WARNER: Why wouldn't 140 percent more area be better?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, it would be if it was all proven through science. You know, certainly the shoulders and the neck, major difference with this -- no groin protection.
And, you know, the contracting people as well as the Army scientists say, look, be careful with dragon skin because it's good for a knife fight but we don't want to take it to Iraq because of the ballistic issues. And they're not comfortable with it yet, but perhaps in the future.
MARGARET WARNER: Please be seated. What do you mean the ballistic issues? Is this a question of mobility or is there a difference in these two between, let's say you took a direct hit -- let's forget about the gaps or set that aside -- is there a difference in the level of protection between this ceramic one and this one with these disks?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, I can't tell you the exact because it's classified but this will take a fairly sizable small arm direct hit. And he'll have to speak for his own.
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): This will not only will take that hit but will take multiple hits and the ceramic plate used in interceptor, one of the complaints from the troops in the field was that too often after one round impact, then you had a bunch of gravel basically inside the pouch.
It basically just kind of disintegrated and lost his rigidity and crumbled upon impact.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there also -- I had read today, Col. Maginnis, an issue of mobility or at least some commanders were saying though you look a little more mobilized than Col. Charles at the moment, that this actually was a little more flexible than this.
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, you know, you can modify this. You can take these shoulder pads off. You can take this neck guard off. You can even take other aspects. You know, it really depends upon what the mission says.
Now, we've upgraded a lot, at least five times over the last couple of years to include this ballistic plate, and it really addresses the issue that he just brought out.
MARGARET WARNER: Col. Charles, the insurgents are tremendously adaptable, and as been pointed out, they've kind of adapted; they know what this vest looks like. Why wouldn't they just adjust to this vest?
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): Well, they had the chance. There was an unsolicited letter from an American contractor over there who was shot eight times in the back wearing one of these that he purchased for his own use.
And he did not know he had been shot until he got back and took it off and saw the bullet perforations in the canvas cover. There was no soft tissue damage so it's proven in the field that it can take multiple hits and still provide protection.
MARGARET WARNER: What do the people you've talked to tell you about why the military has not adopted this? Is it the cost? Is that they really have doubts about its effectiveness?
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): The basic reason, as hard as this may be for your audience to understand, is not invented here: Bureaucratic turf protection because the Army people that were charged with providing this ten, fifteen years ago had a program -- it produced something beginning in 1998 I believe, 1999. But it wasn't this - and they didn't want to use this because they did not claim invention of it.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there a little bureaucratic problem here or --
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): There's bureaucracy everywhere Margaret. In 1999, the interceptor came on line. There have been a lot of modifications since. We're still making those modifications. It's not perfect.
There's no protection system that's 100 percent perfect but it is a lot better than it was and it's getting better all the time. The scientists tell us that it's the best that the world has today.
MARGARET WARNER: Better than this?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): They said bar none. You know, I've already made my statement with regard to dragon skin.
You know, they're looking at this. Anything that comes across their table they will examine. They have research going on at MIT even now on a variety of technologies.
We want to find the best technology to save our soldiers without jeopardizing mobility.
MARGARET WARNER: How much more would it cost to buy these?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, you know, that's a contractual issue. I don't know what his firm would sell the Army his particular product for. But first it has to go through all the extensive ballistic tests which it hasn't but this material has.
MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, to you, Col. Charles, as Col. Maginnis has said, the Marines have ordered now side panels for these vests. How much of the problem will that solve?
LT. COL. ROGER CHARLES (Ret.): Well, it won't solve the proportion to the additional area that's being covered but let me just say I am not a representative for Pinnacle Armor.
We were told by several independent consultants who work for the Pentagon that cannot be named because of fear of losing their jobs that this was probably the best available body armor. It's what they would take to Baghdad. They do not have any financial ties with Pinnacle Armor. We're not saying it's the best. We're saying it ought to get a fair test.
MARGARET WARNER: And what's your very brief explanation of why 80 percent of these soldiers did suffer wounds that went into the gaps?
LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, some of the soldiers weren't wearing body armor because the study just isn't clear. You know, those that were, you know, yes, there are places that you can shoot them. And it depends upon their position and so forth. So it's a tough, tough finding. We're doing our best I think.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Col. Maginnis and Col. Charles, thank you both.