House approves funding for women-specific body armor

Kaylah Jackson
May 10, 2018 - 5:32 pm

(Photo Credit: Cpl. Emily Knitter)

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Among pay raises, personnel additions and expanded funding for new equpiment, tucked within the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019, the annual defense spending bill, is an amendment increase in funding for female-specific body armor.

In recent years, female service members have seen changes to their service uniforms so they can properly complete missions but it's challenging to shoot, move and communicate if your gear, specifically body armor, doesn't fit correcetly. 

That's what now retired, MSG Jeffrey Fenlason discovered in 2010. As a marksmanship instructor with the 101st Airborne Divison (Air Assault), he was tasked with teaching soldiers the fundamentals of marksmanship in order to help the U.S. Army produce trained and efficient shooters. 

"I would generally come across, (on the markesmanship range) if 10 people were struggling, six or seven of them would be women and that didn't make sense to me because the act of shooting is a gender-neutral task," said Fenlason.

After this observation, Fenlason was given the opportunity to brief those outfitting the war effort. "We tell every soldier, they have an inherent right to defend themselves. We have to actually put them in equipment that allows them to do that," he said.

That's when the military started paying more attention to how they outfit their female service members for war. 

Fenlason, after working with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), and with the help of female soldiers providing their own measurements, they totally resdesigned protective vest.

Now known as small statured and female solder body armor (IOTV), a 2102 TIME  "Best Invention" in 2012, the new design features smaller side plates, fit more efficiently on soldier's shoulders and didn't interfere with the soldier's hair or headgear. A number of female soldiers in the 101st were outfitted with this vest as a trial in 2009.

While ill-fitting body armor was shown to negatively affect female service members on the shooting range, a military medicine report from 2015, found that 20 percent of musculoskeletal injuries for females while serving in Afghanistan and were associated with body armor, compared to 4 percent for men.  

Advocacy groups such as Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) have also long been championing for the need of female-specfic equipment.

"To get the chest plates big enough to accomadate a women's bust, they are often male extra large, and that means that the plates are way too long and some of the women, when they sit down, the plate is pushed up up against the bottom of their chin and they have to hold their head funny. They can't bend at the waist which makes it very unsafe to get out of a vehicle or a tank. To accomodate the bust, male armor often leaves gaps above the bust so in particular, if a woman was in hand-to-hand combat the enemy could grab her using that gap as handles on her body armor, " said Retired Capt. Lory Manning, director of government operations for SWAN.

In the upcoming fiscal year, this amendment would advance the development of lighter, stronger and more advanced personal protective equipment.