An NPR report described the personal experience of Maj. Melissa Elledge, deployed to combat zones twice when she had to wear body armor designed for male soldiers. This armor’s failing for female soldiers is not just uncomfortable, it’s potentially dangerous; bad fit created gaps at the arm openings and leaves the heavy ceramic plates resting on the legs, cutting off circulation when the soldier is sitting in tanks or trucks.
Equally concerning is the necessity to move the plates to the side in order to shoulder and aim her rifle. “If I can seat my weapon, I can take a first shot instantly,” Maj. Ellidge said. “For each of us, soldier first, we’re a rifleman. And so to seat that weapon, and to take that first shot is vital to my survivability.”
Elledge is now leads a team for the Army with the responsibility of designing and making available new clothing and equipment for soldiers. The result, a new modular-style body armor, fixes many of the problems, she says, partly with shaping and with several new sizes, and partly by spreading protection across various pieces that can be mixed and matched to fit different threat levels and reduce weight when it’s not needed. All this makes the vest and system less cumbersome – for any soldier.
In fact, the new design offers a system that’s essentially unisex, so any soldier of any size can find the proper fit. Additionally, some of the thick, flexible part of the armor has been shifted to a shirt-style garment that includes sizes designed specifically for women.
A few smaller units that are among the most likely to deploy have begun getting some parts — but not all sizes yet — of the new system, including the Fort Bragg-based 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade, an advising unit made up of experienced soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Desjaunae Williams, who recently got the new vests. Williams said the first thing that caught her attention was the weight. “I was extremely excited when I first got it because it was extremely light compared to the older ones,” she said.
Across the various services, several improvements in uniforms, body armor and other personal gear have been fielded recently or are under development. Partly this is an acknowledgment by the Pentagon that it needs to do more to recruit and retain women, who now make up a substantial part of the military.
Additional recent and upcoming changes in clothing and gear to better accommodate women include new flight suits for several services, a Marine maternity uniform, improvements to helmets, and a better fitting small size of protective suits for bomb disposal teams.