Women are not shaped like men. With female soldiers taking a greater combat role, the Army now is field-testing new body armor that is designed to better fit women.
Eight soldiers with the 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division were fitted Wednesday morning with the Improved Outer Tactical Vest, Generation III. They were the second group of female soldiers to be fitted with the prototype garment.
Female soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky., were the first to be issued the new body armor. The 1st ABCT soldiers are part of a female engagement team deploying to Afghanistan. Their mission downrange includes working alongside male security-force assistance teams.
Cpl. Emily Knitter, 1st ABCT public affairs officer, explained the female engagement team is important because only female soldiers can search or even touch detained Afghan women or provide them with medical aid. Capt. Orielle Buentello, a chemical officer and officer in charge of the team, said her team members need the same protection from their body armor as male soldiers,
“We need a body armor that’s functional, feasible and mobile,” said Buentello, a Texas native whose six-year career includes a previous deployment to Iraq. “I have full rotation in my arms (with this vest). Now, I can get the buttstock of my weapon to my shoulder.”
A petite woman, Buentello said her old body armor was too wide at the shoulders and too long in the torso, making it difficult to bend over at the waist or get the all-important weapon-to-shoulder “weld” necessary for a good sight picture. Bending over or getting in the prone position causes the old vests to open up too far at the neck and under the arms, exposing female soldiers to enemy fire.
“These vests allow us to better defend ourselves, to utilize our weapons in the prone or kneeling positions,” Buentello said. “The weight is the same, but it sits differently. It feels like it’s more evenly distributed on my waist and not just my shoulders.”
Government project engineer Deana Archambault said her department, which designs soldier uniforms and equipment, first received a request three years ago to redesign the IOTV to better fit female soldiers. Master Sgt. Jeff Fenlason, who was a marksmanship instructor at Fort Campbell at the time, had noticed that female soldiers’ marksmanship skills were adversely affected when wearing body armor.
Fenlason listened to what his soldiers were saying then asked the Army to redesign body armor to conform to a woman’s body.
“The top of the new vest is a lot smaller cut,” Archambault said. “The collar is a different shape, too, but the ballistics protection is the same. The (ballistic) plates are the same, although some are smaller.”
Ballistic protection includes protecting the soldier from shrapnel and small-arms fire up to 7.62 millimeters in the chest, sides and back where the metal plates are located, and up 9 millimeters in the collar, groin and lower back extensions.
Archambault said the Army will field-test 100 new vests, then get feedback from the soldiers wearing them. That feedback may lead to further design changes then a final redesign, which would then allow for open bids and full production. She said the Army’s goal is to field more than 3,000 new vests by summer 2013.
After issuing each soldier her new body armor, Archambault demonstrated how to assemble it then she helped the first two soldiers adjust the straps for a better fit. Those soldiers then helped the other soldiers. Once fitted, all the soldiers kept their vests on, making comments like, “Wow! This feels awesome,” and “It fits like a glove.”
Before her team deploys, Buentello plans to allow her soldiers to qualify with their weapons while wearing the new body armor. The Courier will feature a follow-up story on their qualification scores.