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Loading up a more comfortable soldier

From helmets to underwear to boots, equipment and uniform reforms take the weight off and ease the pain.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2003

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A few years ago, a soldier in the Army's elite Delta Force got fed up with his helmet.

Soldiers had long complained their Kevlar helmets fit poorly and covered too much of their heads. That made it hard to hear and uncomfortable to shoot from the prone position.

So the D-Boy, as Delta members are known, performed unauthorized surgery. Using a band saw, he carved about an inch from the back and sides. Voila! A better helmet.

Today the soldier's resourcefulness is reflected in the helmets that will be used by some U.S. troops in Iraq. Their sides and back trimmed, the helmets are 1 pound lighter and boast better cushioning.

The helmets are part of the Army's new effort to provide lighter, more comfortable uniforms and equipment. Thousands of soldiers in Iraq will use the improved helmets, lighter body armor, ergonomic backpacks and more durable boots. They'll also get kneepads, elbow pads and better underwear.

It's a big improvement over the gear soldiers used in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, an improvement Army officials admit is overdue. All troops get the new equipment over the next few years.

"We're listening now," says Jimmy Hodges, assistant project manager of the Army's effort. "The government traditionally didn't listen."

Replacing the canteen

The Army has never cared much about comfort.

Soldiers are expected to be cold, wet, pinched, squeezed and overloaded. War is hell, after all, so there's no point worrying about bad underwear.

"If we were Nike, we'd be out of business tomorrow," says Jean-Louis "Dutch" DeGay, a former Army Ranger working in the research and development of new gear. "But that's what soldiers are accustomed to."

The Army is changing its approach. Officials realize comfortable soldiers perform better. Better equipment means more productivity from each soldier. On the battlefield, a comfortable soldier is, to use the Army's terminology, "more lethal."

But money and machismo long kept the Army from buying new gear. It took years, for example, to replace the canteen.

"It's certainly an old-school item," DeGay says. "We've had it in the system for 100 years. It's a great container for holding water, but it's not great for using on the move."

He says soldiers must let go of their rifles to take a drink, and the bulky bottles can be awkward in combat.

Says Brig. Gen. Stephen Seay, "Many times, I dropped and rolled and that sucker put a dent in my hip."

Instead of canteens, thousands of soldiers have bought Camelbak systems, which hold water in a bladder in their backpack. A tube runs to their collar, allowing them to drink without letting go of their gun.

They bought their Camelbaks because the Army has balked at adopting them. That's partly because of cost -- $31 for a Camelbak vs. a few dollars for a canteen -- and concerns about whether they can withstand chemical attacks.

Tradition also played a role. The canteen has a long history of relieving battle-weary soldiers. Old-timers were not enthusiastic about replacing it with a newfangled gadget.

"A lot of the leadership in the U.S. Army had a problem with a soldier walking around with a bladder on his back, sucking out of a tube," says Butch Hancock, a retired sergeant major now working for Point Blank, a company that makes body armor. "One of those guys told me, 'When I was in Vietnam, I didn't have any problem reaching for a canteen.' "

Better for the dogs

The new gear is part of the Rapid Fielding Initiative, which has equipped about 20,000 Iraq-bound soldiers at a cost of about $4,000 each. The remaining 100,000 Army soldiers will get the gear over the next four years.

The key goal is to reduce weight, especially in backpacks, known as rucksacks or rucks. A fully loaded soldier sometimes must carry more than 120 pounds of gear.

"Some of these soldiers have rucks that weigh as much as they do," Seay says.

Instead of the old-style, aluminum-frame backpack, known as ALICE, the Army has a lighter, more ergonomic model named MOLLE. It is modular, which allows soldiers to carry a small backpack for shorter missions. The small version looks like an ordinary school backpack but it is camouflaged and has the intimidating name "Combat Assault Pack."

Helmets have come a long way from the M-1 "steel pots" used from World War II into the 1970s. Those helmets had many uses -- soldiers used them for cooking or to hold water during shaving -- but they didn't provide much protection.

Then came the first Kevlar version, dubbed the K-pot or Darth Vader helmet. But it wobbled when soldiers ran, and its sides were too long.

Thanks to the D-Boy's surgery and the complaints of many other soldiers, the Advanced Combat Helmet is lighter and more bullet resistant. It has straps on the front and back that hold it more securely.

Its soft pads make it more comfortable, although "you can't shave with the damn thing," Hancock says.

Rocky terrain in Afghanistan tore apart many soldiers' boots, prompting a lot of complaints. The Army has six varieties for different terrain and temperature, two of which see action in Iraq. Improved cushioning makes them feel more like a hiking boot.

Hancock, the retired sergeant, says the Army has "done some great things in boot technology."

He says good boots are crucial because "a soldier knows if his dogs start hurtin', he can't take another step."

There is even improved underwear. The old cotton underwear absorbed sweat and often made soldiers cold. The new synthetic material, used first by special forces, is more comfortable because it wicks moisture away from the skin.

Learn and live

New body armor saved Jason Ashline's life.

During Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan last March, Ashline's unit was dropped into a valley to fight al-Qaida and Taliban forces. His unit had been taking heavy fire when Ashline got hit.

The impact took the wind out of him, but he was okay. He figured it was just shrapnel.

The next morning, he discovered it was a bullet. It was still in the chest plate of his Interceptor Body Armor. If not for the armor, Ashline would have been shot in the heart.

"The vest did its job," Ashline says nonchalantly.

Soldiers have long had body armor, but improvements in materials in the past decade have lightened the load. The new version weighs about 16 pounds, down from about 26 pounds in the 1991 Gulf War.

U.S. troops also will have better weapons and scouting gear than they did in 1991.

A new camera system will allow them to provide live video from the battlefield to other soldiers or commanders. They can also take digital snapshots and transmit them.

The more adaptable M-4 is replacing the dependable M-16. The M-4 can be outfitted with night-vision equipment, laser targeting, thermal sights and a grenade launcher.

In Army terminology, the M-4 isn't so much a rifle as a weapon system.

"We can tailor the weapon system for the mission," says Major Roy Manauis, assistant product manager for the new program to equip soldiers.

Seay says the gear is better because the Army listened to soldiers.

"We learned a lot of lessons," he says. "We came back and applied those lessons."

-- Staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or

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