A secret Pentagon study has found that as many as 80 percent of the Marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived if they had had extra body armor. Such armor has been available since 2003, but until recently the Pentagon has largely declined to supply it to troops despite calls from the field for additional protection, according to military officials.
The ceramic plates in vests worn by the majority of troops in Iraq cover only some of the chest and back. In at least 74 of the 93 fatal wounds that were analyzed in the Pentagon study of Marines from March 2003 through June 2005, bullets and shrapnel struck the Marines' shoulders, sides or areas of the torso where the plates do not reach.
Thirty-one of the deadly wounds struck the chest or back so close to the plates that enlarging the existing shields "would have had the potential to alter the fatal outcome," according to the study, which was obtained by The New York Times.
For the first time, the study by the military's medical examiner shows the cost in lost lives from inadequate armor, even as the Pentagon continues to publicly defend its protection of the troops.
Officials have said they are shipping the best armor to Iraq as quickly as possible. At the same time, they have maintained that it is impossible to shield forces from the increasingly powerful improvised explosive devices used by insurgents. Yet the Pentagon's study reveals the equally lethal threat of bullets.
The vulnerability of the military's body armor has been known since the start of the war and is part of a series of problems that have surrounded the protection of American troops. Still, the Marine Corps did not begin buying additional plates to cover the sides of their troops until last September, when it ordered 28,800 sets, Marine officials acknowledge.
The Army, which has the largest force in Iraq, is still deciding what to purchase, according to Army procurement officials. They said the Army was deciding between various sizes of plates to give its 130,000 soldiers, adding that they hoped to issue contracts this month.
Additional forensic studies by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's unit that were obtained by The Times indicate that about 340 American troops have died solely from torso wounds.
The Pentagon has been collecting the data on wounds since the beginning of the war in March 2003, in part so officials may find out the effectiveness of body armor. The military's medical examiner, Dr. Craig T. Mallak, told a military panel in 2003 that the information "screams to be published." But it would take nearly two years.
The Marine Corps said it asked for the data in August 2004; but it needed to pay the medical examiner $107,000 to have the data analyzed. Marine officials said financing and other delays had resulted in the study's not starting until December 2004. It finally began receiving the information by June 2005.
Body armor has gone through a succession of problems in Iraq. First, there were prolonged shortages of the plates that make the vests bulletproof. Last year, the Pentagon began replacing the plates with a stronger model that is more resistant to certain insurgent attacks.
Almost from the beginning, some soldiers asked for additional protection to stop bullets from slicing through their sides. In the fall of 2003, when troops began hanging their crotch protectors under their arms, the Army's Rapid Equipping Force shipped several hundred plates to protect their sides and shoulders. Individual soldiers and units continued to buy their own sets.
The Army's former acting secretary, Les Brownlee, said in a recent interview that he was shown numerous designs for expanded body armor in 2003 and had instructed his staff to weigh their benefits against the perceived threat without losing sight of the main task: eliminating the shortages of plates for the chest and back.
Army procurement officials said that their efforts to purchase side ceramic plates had been encumbered by the Army's much larger force in Iraq compared with the Marines', and that they wanted to provide manufacturers with detailed specifications. Also, they said their plates would be made to resist the stronger insurgent attacks.
The Marines said they decided to take the older version of ceramic to speed delivery. As of early last month, officials said Marines in Iraq had received 2,200 of the more than 28,000 sets of plates that are being bought at a cost of about $260 each.
Marine officials said they had supplied troops with soft shoulder protection that can repel some shrapnel, but they remained concerned that ceramic shoulder plates would be too restrictive. Similarly, they said they believed that the chest and back plates were as large as they could be without unduly limiting the movement of troops.