With the passage of the sprawling fiscal 2021 defense policy and budget bill all but inevitable, one U.S. senator is looking forward to a new measure that will require the military to provide properly fitting body armor for female service members, and to develop centralized reporting on the injuries caused by years of requiring women to wear wrong-sized ballistic protection.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel and helicopter pilot who served in Afghanistan, co-authored the provisions with another combat veteran, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. Ernst was a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard.
As a soldier, Duckworth said, she experienced firsthand the physical discomfort and additional risk that resulted from women making shift with armor designed for a man's body.
"The smallest size they would have at certain points in time would be a men's medium or a men's large," Duckworth told Military.com in an interview this month. "That would lead to gaps ... at the collarbone where snipers could take advantage. It's not just about ill-fitting and not feeling comfortable ... but it's also an opportunity for our enemies to exploit."
At National Guard units like hers, she added, sometimes troops' families would purchase additional sizes of body armor, or state governments would invest in better equipment. But for most military services, body armor customized specifically for women doesn't fully exist.
The Air Force hit a milestone this year when it fielded the first ballistic plate carriers customized for women to its female Security Forces airmen -- those who work in law enforcement and support base defense.
"Our female Airmen had gaps due to poor fitment issues," Maj. Saily Rodriguez, Female Fitment Program Manager, said in a statement in June. "The new gear fits properly, which improves protection and offers better comfort for gear that has to be worn in difficult environments and conditions."
The Army and the Marine Corps in recent years have worked to field a broader size range of plate carriers, and develop body armor systems with more accommodating fits, but have not invested in protective items designed for women alone.
The provisions sponsored by Duckworth and Ernst would require each relevant military service to brief Congress by Jan. 31, 2021, on efforts to field the newest generations of protective equipment, including the Army's Modular Scalable Vest Generation II and the Marine Corps' Plate Carrier Generation III, as well as a tally of how many women and men have received each kind as of the end of 2020. It would also require an assessment of the barriers to fielding these equipment sets, including cost overruns and manufacturer lags.
In addition, the measure would require the reporting of centralized data regarding "whether members incurred an injury in connection with ill-fitting or malfunctioning personal protective equipment," including details about the injuries sustained. This data would be collected via questions on the annual Periodic Health Assessment of members of the Armed Forces and routine post-deployment health assessments.
"It's not that [these issues haven't] been studied; it's that we don't know what has been studied," Duckworth said. " ... What I found was a lack of systematic data sharing and data tracking, and also some overlap."
She added that she found waste in duplication of efforts as well, with multiple services working to develop better-fitting body armor for women instead of a single centralized initiative that could benefit all.
Duckworth said the measure found bipartisan support as it made its way through Congress, a sign that there's more familiarity and comfort with the growing role of women in combat arms. A number of ground combat and special operations jobs remained closed to women until 2016, when a mandate from then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened all military jobs to anyone who could meet the qualifications.
"Thirteen years ago, when I started talking body armor, it was a little bit controversial," Duckworth said. "But now, people are aware, and there's surprise that the data is not more centralized."
The fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act has been passed by the House and Senate and awaits president Donald Trump's signature. While Trump has threatened to veto the bill over a provision related to renaming Army bases honoring Confederate generals and the absence of the repeal of a law granting some protections to social media companies, there's more than enough support in the House and Senate to override it.