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Marines in Iraq now have all sides covered

23 Feb 2006 | Cpl. William Skelton

Marines walking the beat in Fallujah are now covered on all sides, thanks new armor ballistic plates added to their vests.  Still, the new gear is getting mixed reviews.

Marines with Regimental Combat Team 5 recently received their side body armor plates, called small-arms protective inserts, or SAPI.  The added armor, made of the same materials as the chest and back plates, was generated after Marine Corps officials commissioned a study and found some combat deaths might have been prevented if the ceramic armor plates extended to the sides of the torso. 

The added armor has some Marines singing its’ praises and others grumbling.  The added protection is welcomed by Marines who expose themselves to gunfire and roadside improvised explosive devices.  But the added weight, even at over just a couple pounds apiece, is causing some Marines to wonder if the loss of mobility is worth the protection.

Marines assigned to 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, serving with RCT-5 near Fallujah, were among the first to receive their side SAPIs.  They are mandatory for each Marine to wear.  Orders here are clear about personal protection. 

Marines leaving the wire wear chest and back SAPI plates, along with the new side plates.  Groin protectors, collars and neck protectors are required at all times, in addition to ballistic eye protection and fire-retardant gloves.  Marines manning machine guns in humvee turrets also wear ballistic protection for shoulders, arms and legs.

“Side SAPIs are designed to protect a Marine’s sides where the normal flak jacket plates don’t cover,” said Maj. Bill Wischmeyer, the 39-year-old battalion executive officer from San Diego. 

The plates are designed to stop a bullet from penetrating and injuring Marines and sailors in firefights.  Regular anecdotal evidence exists of Marines who were shot in their chest SAPI plates, with nothing more than a bruise to show for it.

Lance Cpl. Colt. J. Luman, a 22-year-old from Farmington, N.M., said he’s a fan of the added protection.  He doesn’t think it adds too much weight and balances out well with the rest of the vest.

“They’re good pieces of gear,” said Luman, assigned to Headquarters and Service Company. “It’s easy to take on and off and most importantly they protect your sides when before there was nothing there.”

The new plates were issued to Marines in pockets designed to be strapped into the existing webbing already stitched to the outer tactical vests. 

Some Marines, though, wonder how much protection is too much.  Marines recently demonstrated to Congress that with each added layer of protection, they sacrifice mobility they desperately need fighting in an urban environment.  Here, on the battlefield, those same questions still linger.

“A normal flak jacket only has a pocket for the front and rear plates,” said Pfc. Caleb M. Medley, a 19-year-old infantryman with Company C and Burlington, Colo. resident. “The new side SAPIs have to be snapped into the sides of the already heavy flak.”

Pfc. Xeeng Y. Lee, a 20-year-old infantryman from Syracuse, N.Y., had his own concerns about the side SAPIs.

“The gear is a lot heavier with the side plates on,” said Lee, assigned to Company C. “The plates dangle low and get in the way a lot.”

Wishchmeyer explained that Marine commanders owed it to their Marines to use innovation and all available means to protect their forces.  Insurgents in Iraq are constantly adapting their tactics, and gaps in the protective equipment were specifically targeted.

“The enemy adapts to our armor, so we constantly have to come up with better, more efficient ways to protect our Marines,” Wischmeyer said.

“Are they heavy? Yes,” he added.  “Do they make the vest heavier? Yes.  Is there a lot of armor on that thing? Yes, but the bottom line is we owe it to the Marines to provide what ever gear we can to protect them.”