This year the Pentagon opened up new jobs that could land more females on the frontlines. So now the military is tailoring body armor for a smaller silhouette – an improvement over the previous generation for women of the 101st Airborne Division.
“I couldn’t bring my arms forward or raise them up over my head,” says Sgt. Stacy Coffield. “Just trying to put on my helmet was a tedious task.”
Coffield says the vests were too long, so they would push up around her ears while riding in Humvees, making her feel a bit like a turtle poking its head out of a shell.
Women endure bruised hips, sore shoulders. Busty girls may have it the worst.
“We can’t stand wearing the old one now. Now that we’ve had the new one, we’re just like ‘oh my god,’” Coffield says. “It’s like night and day.”
The military set aside some $15 million to develop female body armor. This unit within the 101st Airborne’s 1st Brigade is called a “female engagement team.” It will be the first fitted with the new armor, says Maj. Joel Dillon who oversees the project Army-wide.
More Than Comfort
“Regardless of body shape, size, etc., we want to get the best possible fit so that they’re protected and they’re comfortable,” Dillon says. “They’re going to be wearing this – day in and day out – for months and months on end in theater.”
A bad fit isn’t just annoying. Dillon says it’s hazardous. It slows women down getting into and out of a vehicle. Some have to pull their vest to the side when they bring a weapon to their shoulder, compromising protection of the ceramic plates, which work best when they’re snug against the body.
At the firing range, members of the team lay face down in the prone position. Their ponytails push their Kevlar helmets down into their eyes – another gender-specific equipment issue that Army designers are looking at.
Many women in uniform say they try to keep the complaints to a minimum, despite the hardships of living in a male-dominated world.
“It’s never been an issue to me,” Spec. Araceli Rojas says of the new body armor. “It is a little bit more comfortable. It feels lighter.”
Designers say the 30-pound female armor isn’t actually lighter. It just feels that way when the fit is right.
Rojas will deploy with her unit in the coming weeks. Each of the women volunteered for this mission.
Hard Shell, Soft Touch
The California-native raised her hand after the last deployment to Afghanistan when she unofficially did some female engagement, meeting a young girl near her base with a skin disease.
“I would just order Vaseline or whatever I could online to help her out and make sure that she took in small quantities.” Rojas says. “Because if the Taliban were to find out…you don’t know what they would do to them.”
By creating these female engagement teams, the military has acknowledged that a softer touch could be a valuable diplomatic tool. To be culturally sensitive, male soldiers don’t even look at the Afghan women, much less talk to them.
Since the start of war in Afghanistan, 36 women have died, including one from Fort Campbell just last month. Some were killed in combat.
A new flack jacket may just make doing a dangerous job a little more comfortable.
“I just want to do whatever I can to help them out,” Rojas says. “You can’t always try to keep yourself safe.”