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thedrifter
01-30-06, 08:10 AM
U.S. troops’ equipment an issue of need vs. want
Monday, January 30, 2006
Jeb Phillips
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Stories of military need have come from Iraq since the war began: the vehicles that needed more armor, the vests that needed more and better bulletproof plates, the Marine sergeant from Worthington who needed his father to send him batteries for his night-vision optics.

A secret Pentagon report, first disclosed by The New York Times earlier this month, said that up to 80 percent of Marines who died from upper body wounds might have survived with extra body armor.

And for more than two years, a Web site has listed items that military snipers in Iraq want but don’t have.

To those back home, it looks as though our troops aren’t getting what they need. But those in Iraq say it’s not that simple.

"When I went over there the first time, everyone was complaining about body armor," said Kris Benson, the sergeant from Worthington who now lives in Chicago. "No one wanted to wear it then. We had never trained with the plates before."

Some of the bulletproof plates seemed too heavy until the insurgency got rolling, then they became something everyone wanted. There is always a trade-off between personal mobility and protection, said Benson, who spent two tours in Iraq, including with the first wave of Marines who swept into Baghdad.

You can either be light enough to get out of the way of a crossfire, or you can be completely bulletproof and stuck where you are, no matter how dangerous, he said.

"I’ve seen Kevlar (bulletproof) pants," Benson said. "You could wear them, but they’d be so restrictive that it wouldn’t make sense to wear them."

And that is where the line between necessity and personal preference gets blurry, said Benson and other Marines who have been in Iraq. The troops on the ground can tell the difference, even if people at home can’t.

The military has decided that more armor is now a necessity. The Marines have already sent extra plates to Iraq, the Army is doing the same, and the military has contracted for tougher vehicles.

But Benson acknowledges that lots of other items, including his night-vision optics, are simply a matter of feeling comfortable. He liked some optics better than those issued by the Marines, so he bought them. The Marines don’t issue the batteries that fit his, so his father sent those.

The same is true of binoculars, said Gunnery Sgt. Larry Bowman, of the Columbus-based Lima Company, 25 th Battalion, 3 rd Marines, who spent time in Iraq last year. If you don’t like what the Marines give you, you buy your own. People in his unit did it all the time, but they could get the job done with the other ones if they had to.

One of the best-known examples of personal preference when it comes to military equipment is the project once known as Adopt-a-Sniper, now called American Snipers.

Overseas military snipers send a list of what they’d like to a group of domestic police snipers, who post the wish list at www.americansnipers.org. Readers donate money and equipment, and those donations have come to about $400,000 since 2003, said Keith Deneys, a sheriff’s sniper in Wisconsin who helps run the project.

The list includes dozens of items: scopes, grips, ammunition wallets, rangefinders, solvents, knives, batteries, lamps, goggles, carabiners. The snipers want them, Deneys said. That list would make their jobs easier, though in many cases they have some version of those items already. They aren’t necessities.

"(The military) provides the basics to do the job," Deneys said. "What we do is make them more efficient and effective."

A lot of the civilians at home who are arguing that troops should get more, different and better supplies miss a key point, said Bowman:

"There are some times you are just going to get hurt."

Bowman was wounded May 8 while clearing houses during Operation Matador near the Syrian border. A piece of shrapnel sliced through his left calf. Kevlar pants might have prevented that, or they might have made it so difficult to move that he would have been hurt anyway.

Sgt. Chad Watkins, also of Lima Company, was shot in the foot on the same day. It’s a war, he said, people get shot. He said he never felt undersupplied, or that he needed something that he did not have. He has decided that the next time he goes over, he’d like some of those glasses that automatically tint when he walks outside.

And he will go back, he said. He knows the dangers, he’s seen the equipment. Even if he has to change units, he will go back. He was wounded before he finished his duty.

"I feel like I should be there," he said.

jeb.phillips@dispatch.com

Ellie