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Female Soldiers Are Getting New Body Armor Designed Just For Them

Staff Sgt. Kiara Johnson in the new modular body armor vest.
Jay Price
Staff Sgt. Kiara Johnson in the new modular body armor vest.

Updated July 22, 2021 at 8:03 AM ET

Maj. Melissa Elledge deployed to combat zones twice in earlier versions of body armor designed for a male-centric Army, so she's deeply familiar with their failings for women. The bad fit created potentially lethal gaps at the arm openings and left the heavy ceramic plates resting on her legs, cutting off circulation as she sat in trucks or aircraft.

And for the first 14 years of her career, those plates have taken vital time to shove aside before she could shoulder and aim her rifle.

"If I can seat my weapon, I can take a first shot instantly," she said. "For each of us, soldier first, we're a rifleman. And so to seat that weapon, and to take that first shot is vital to my survivability."

Now, Elledge leads the body armor team at the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier, which is responsible for quickly designing new clothing and equipment for soldiers and getting it into the field rapidly.

The new modular-style body armor fixes many of the problems, she says, partly with shaping and with several new sizes, and partly by spreading protection across various pieces that can be mixed and matched to fit different threat levels and reduce weight when its not needed. All this makes the vest and system less cumbersome, a plus whether you're female or not.

"You'll hear soldiers talk about how I feel like a turtle," she said. "You know, if you're down on the ground and you need to get up quickly. The legacy armor makes that difficult."

The new sizes of the vest part of the system are unisex, and better cover the wide range of differences, like torso length, in all soldiers, and give smaller male soldiers a better fit, she said. And some of the thick, flexible part of the armor has been shifted to a shirt-style garment that includes women's sizes with more flare at the waist to keep it from riding up and creating dangerous gaps, and with more generous shaping to protect the side of the bust better.

A handful of small units that are among the most likely to deploy have begun getting some parts — but not all sizes yet — of the new system, including the Fort Bragg-based 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade, an advising unit made up of unusually experienced soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Desjaunae Williams and Staff Sgt. Kiara Johnson, who recently got the new vests.

Williams said the first thing that caught her attention was the weight.

"I was extremely excited when I first got it because it was extremely light compared to the older ones," she said.

Johnson was equally enthusiastic.

"It feels great," she said. "It feels more tailored to the body. So it doesn't feel like something is weighing you down, dragging you down or holding you down. It's more everything close-centered on the body."

Across the various services, several improvements in uniforms, body armor and other personal gear have been fielded recently or are under development. Partly this is an acknowledgment by the Pentagon that it needs to do more to recruit and retain women, who now make up a substantial part of the military.

And there's more pressure from Congress, which now includes female combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Sens. Joni Ernst and Tammy Duckworth.

"The military tends to try to treat everybody the same, it's a pure meritocracy," Duckworth said. "But at a certain point, when you have women have finally reached a point where as a population within the military, we're so critical that the military could not go to war without its female service members, now you've got to start really paying more attention."

Ernst, an Iowa Republican, and Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, have been pushing for better body armor for years.

Duckworth said the need has long been obvious.

"When I showed up in Iraq in 2004, the only body armor sizes they had available were a large and extra larges: male sizes," said Duckworth. "Eventually, we got more, but there was almost no size small body armor."

This isn't just a matter of comfort. Duckworth said she has talked with a former combat doctor who had treated cases where gaping, ill-fitting armor gave snipers a clean shot.

It's true that the modern type of body armor is a relatively new development and didn't see widespread use in combat until the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the Army now has detailed data from its performance in those wars and is using that to refine the designs.

Duckworth, who flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq until she was badly wounded, also said flight suits hadn't fit women well either.

That's changing.

That wave of recent and upcoming changes in clothing and gear to better accommodate women includes new flight suits for several services, a Marine maternity uniform, improvements to helmets, and a better fitting small size of protective suits for bomb disposal teams.

There's even a new maternity flight suit. This spring, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson drew fire from the Pentagon and veterans after mocking the military for developing it. But — like those using the other improved clothing and gear — troops wearing it say it's serious business.

Lt. Stephanie Ajuzie is a flight surgeon at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, in Maryland. She's one of the first sailors to received the new maternity flight suit.

"Honestly, the first thing I thought was, wow, this is such a simple modification, how come it took so long?" she said. "But it's just also very exciting that we're finally doing it."

Ajuzie said there's no question it makes her more effective.

"If you feel like the items that you're wearing are physically uncomfortable to you, you don't feel as great to do your job," Ajuzie said. "You know, over the years, going back historically, women didn't always put on the uniform and so obviously, the originally uniforms were designed for males, and it's going to be a learning process to figure out what works for women. But to be recognized that, 'Hey, you guys matter, and you being comfortable and wearing a uniform that you feel represents your shape and your size' is important."

The military has struggled to recruit and retain female troops. It recently made life easier for many by easing restrictions on some hair styles, moving away from the standard, headache-inducing tight buns to allow looser styles.

Staff Sgt. Williams at Fort Bragg said that, and things like the changes to the body armor and uniforms, make military life more appealing.

"It's appreciated, because if you put us in these big clothes, or this big body armor, we feel like ... I feel like I might lose myself," she said. "I feel like I have to be bigger in order to accommodate what I have, or what was given to me. But now I feel like the Army is accommodating me as a whole. And I can still be the size I am and still be able to do what I need to do as a soldier."

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.