Troops getting gear from charity as U.S. military braces for budget cuts

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned this week that looming military spending cuts “will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force.”

The caution comes as no surprise to Aaron Negherbon, whose nonprofit helps soldiers circumvent government fiscal challenges and red tape to get critical equipment to combat troops.

“I’ve been told by units that are over there, as well as units that are still stateside, that they are already feeling budget pinches as a result of the state of affairs in D.C.,” said Negherbon, TroopsDirect founder. “We’re hearing more statements that are along the lines of, ‘Our supply chains have been minimized, and we can’t get stuff in the time that we need.’”

For the past three years, Negherbon says his handful of volunteers near Oakland, Calif., have secured and expedited 60,000 pounds of vital supplies like stretchers, communications gear, protective goggles and more to infantry units and special operations forces around the globe.

But then a few weeks ago, the former real estate broker fielded a call for something never requested before: bulletproof vests.

“We need body armor,” Negherbon recalls the veteran Army sergeant saying. “He said, ‘We’re getting ready to deploy, and they are only giving us 30 of the 60 vests that we need.’ The way he laid it out to me … it was part budget and part just general policy of what the unit was going to be issued as opposed to what they needed to have issued.”

The sergeant told Negherbon 60 soldiers in his unit, which deploys to Afghanistan in early April, are route-clearing specialists assigned to eliminate roads of obstacles, primarily improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“It’s not like they are chefs or secretaries,” Negherbon said. “They are the guys that go out there and identify and defuse the bombs.

[Related: NATO chief urges countries to halt defense cuts]

For security reasons, Negherbon declined to identify the Army sergeant who called him. But he says he verified the request with a unit commander before placing the order. Negherbon sent Yahoo News a copy of the invoice for 31 modular operator plate carriers (MOPC) by Condor. The total cost of $1,700 was relatively low because the sergeant said they already had the protective plates for the MOPCs.

However, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon said every soldier deployed to Afghanistan is issued the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV).

“It provides for maximum protection, as the Army has conducted exhaustive testing on that system. Certainly fit for route-clearing operations,” Matthew Bourke, the spokesman, said in an email to Yahoo News.

The military is already operating on less money than planned and without an approved annual spending bill, but Bourke is adamant that his branch has no shortage of body armor or other supplies.

“That is just not accurate,” he said. Bourke did acknowledge that Special Forces troops and certain other units are provided the MOPC-style vests because some soldiers find the design lighter and more mobile.

“The MOPC is approved for wear, but does not offer the protection rates IOTVs do,” he said. “When developing body armor, protection has always been our primary concern.”

Negherbon said troops tell him the IOTV is antiquated and cumbersome.

“Like issuing a musket when a shotgun is needed,” he said.

Regardless of which vest is better, Negherbon said TroopsDirect policy has always been to go with what the boots on the ground want.

“If they ask for a certain item, that’s what we give them,” he said. “They know what is best for them.”

TroopsDirect raised $786,813 in 2011 through corporate backers, grants and individual donors. Negherbon, who drew a $43,750 salary, said 87 cents of every dollar went directly to troop-related expenses.

Troops have responded by blanketing the organization’s Facebook wall with thanks.

“Sir, I spoke with our Seabee's this past week and they wanted me to convey their greatest appreciation in the boxes of gloves and safety glasses sent to them! Truly a blessing to them so they can finish the mission!”

“Care packages are nice but they aren’t keeping us alive and our arms and legs intact like your TroopsDirect shipments are.”

Automatic budget cuts slated to begin March 1 could cost the Department of Defense a possible $46 billion through the end of September.

“Ultimately, sequestration and the continuing resolution will affect readiness and training and fleet and equipment maintenance,” wrote Bourke, the Army spokesman. “It will affect acquisition and modernizing our equipment. It's going to affect soldiers in combat. But, not soldiers that are currently there or those set to deploy in this next round. The units after that, however, will start to feel the effects.”

In the meantime, TroopsDirect expects the bulletproof vests to be ready for shipping in early March.

“We’ve never had a request like this,” Negherbon said. “But certainly for obvious reasons we are filling that order in rapid fashion.”