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10-22-03, 06:06 AM

Hack's Target

Have Vest, Will Loan

By David H. Hackworth

My British-made bulletproof Tetranike vest served me well in the badlands of ex-Yugoslavia, Somalia and Latin America back in my days as a war correspondent – that is, before darling wife Eilhys changed the drill.

But that doesn’t mean the vest is also retired. No sirree. Since 9-11, my trusty Tetranike has served one tour with the Army in Afghanistan and three in Iraq: with the Army, FBI and presently protecting a retired “snake eater” who’s training the Iraqi police force.

The reason that sucker’s so well-traveled is that the Bush administration just can’t get its priorities right when it comes to giving each and every one of our soldiers the right stuff to kick up the odds of their making it through the hit-and-run hell of insurgent combat.

About 40,000 of our sons and daughters in harm’s way in Iraq actually have to buy, borrow, beg or go without adequate body armor because a bumbling Pentagon bureaucracy hasn’t been issuing 100 percent of our troops the very best full metal jacket money can buy – even though the money has been long appropriated.

Worried moms and pops are sending vests to their kids in care packages that in other conflicts contained cookies and Kool-Aid. A manufacturer’s ad in Army Magazine says it all: “Our vest could be the best four pounds a soldier ever gained.”

The latest vests – worn by a large percentage of our luckier grunts – are composed of layered sheets of Kevlar with pockets in front and back for ceramic plates to protect vital organs and will stop a point-blank 7.62 small-arms fire. One-third lighter than the Vietnam-type gear, they, of course, aren’t the final solution, but they’re far better than anything else the engineers have cooked up to date.

Our soldiers swear by them – and so do the docs. Body armor saves lives and has well-demonstrated its bullet- and shrapnel-stopping efficiency in bad places like Somalia, Afghanistan and now daily in Iraq – where so far about 2,000 soldiers have been killed or wounded.

If these more modern flak jackets aren’t preventing hundreds of legs and arms from being blown off – keeping the docs at Army hospitals like Walter Reed burning the midnight oil – at least they’re standing between more of our kids and the morgue.

But too many troopers in Iraq tell me they still have Vietnam-era antiques that are about as effective as wrapping cotton batting around their torsos.

The reason for this Pentagon criminal negligence is twofold: first, the $310 million Congress approved for the vests got parked at various places, where bucks were siphoned off for noncombat-related items; and second, the Army has treated the vest issue the way it handles routine requisitions, such as portable toilets and tent poles.

Soldiers for the Truth executive retired Marine Lt. Col. Roger Charles was dead on target when he said, “The Pentagon has handled the replacement of body armor as though it’s a routine general-issue item.”

A few years back, the top supply brass decided to implement a one-for-one exchange of new vests for old vests. Apparently, the realities of Afghanistan and Iraq still haven’t hit the radar screen of these logistics wizards, so biz-as-usual continues to be the order of the day – despite the mounting casualties.

Congress is about to approve about $65 billion for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Bush & Company haven't included one penny for body armor, even though the cost of the extraordinary security precautions on the president’s recent Asian tour would cover a vest for every soldier seconded to the Iraqi sand traps.

For sure, enough cash would be skimmed off that giant pile of taxpayer dough to fix this critical problem if Rummy, Gen. Richard Myers and a few of the Pentagon supply generals were outfitted with obsolete vests and sent off with our serving heroes to patrol the mean streets of Iraq.

The vests would suddenly be exchanged as quickly as Abrams tanks’ and Bradley Fighting Vehicles’ tracks get replaced – with U.S. plants working three shifts and the heavy tracks then rushed by air to the battlefield.

Which is the way it always should be.

If we don't take care of our troops, how can they take care of us?

The address of David Hackworth's home page is Hackworth.com. Sign in for the free weekly Defending America column at his Web site. Send mail to P.O. Box 11179, Greenwich, CT 06831. His newest book is “Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts.”

© 2003 David H. Hackworth