In the early 70s, only 2.5 percent of the United States Armed Forces were women. But these days women are a common part of the military. For the last couple decades, women have made up close to one-sixth of soldiers. Until recently, they’ve served in support roles, and haven’t been on many front lines. With changing roles, more female soldiers are training for situations that put them in harm’s way. But military bases recognized a problem: body armor was designed to fit men, not women. Equipment designers began work to change that in 2009 with a new generation of female body armor. At Fort Campbell, soldiers recently participated in the first full field tests.
The Army’s mainstay protective gear is the outer tactical vest, a soft material body armor with hard plate inserts. It’s supposed to protect a soldier from shrapnel and bullets. It’s not supposed to do what happened to Specialist Theresa Baldwin.
“You couldn’t put your arms forward. When you are rucking it cuts you in the hips. When you sit down, it cuts the circulation off in your legs," she said.
Baldwin is five feet tall, and compact. She’s outfitted in full gear, a rifle slung across her chest. She’s training for a deployment to Afghanistan this fall. Female soldiers prepare for missions the same way as their male counterparts with situations that test physical readiness, stamina, and weapons skills. But Baldwin says the military’s bulky standard body armor kept her uncomfortable. She says the problem is typical.
“I mean, 14 percent of women in the military, I guarantee you more of them are five feet, five or less than anything else," Baldwin said.
The prototype female body armor recognizes both differences in height and body type. It’s shorter in the waist, smaller around the shoulders, and wider in the chest. Libby Richardson works on product evaluation out of the U. S. Army's Abilene Test Center.
“I think the biggest thing for females is typically body armor itself is sized by chest circumference. So as a female, your chest circumference is going to be one thing, but we’re smaller in the waist," said Richardson. "So when you put standard body armor on that’s cut straight, it’s measured by chest, and you put it on for your chest circumference, and you have a lot of gapping here."
The 19-soldier test unit at Fort Campbell spent two weeks putting the armor through different environments, like crawling along the ground, holding a weapon, and going on long marches. As the soldiers put the new tactical vests through their paces on the rifle range, a team of researchers writes down their comments. Is it too tight? Does it rub your armpits when you run? Do you need more adjustability?
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’m living a dream when I wear this stuff, seriously," commented Specialist Giliann Campbell.
Campbell calls the armor she had to wear before a “terrible” thing that kept her from lifting her arms above her head or bending over. Campbell is used to being the only woman in a unit. She says the new armor, called Gen-3, will level the playing field between her and the male soldiers.
“I feel as though I can now perform to my better ability. Because with men they don’t have the problem with the boobs. They don’t have the problems with the hips. Our center of gravity is in our hips. Their center of gravity is in their shoulder. The Gen-3 focuses more on the torso and being attached to the torso and not sitting on the hips or the shoulders," she said. "And yes, I feel I can perform better, and maybe even outperform them as well.”
Anderson says her only complaint is the military didn’t come out with armor for women sooner.
“But we’re happy, it’s—it’ll be good for our deployment," she said.
Seventeen of the 19 women in the field trials are part of the army’s new Female Engagement Team, or FET—soldiers trained specifically to interact with Afghan women. Assistant Product Manager Major Joel Dillon was part of the armor design team. He says the they picked the FET intentionally.
“They’re going to be going out on patrol with the infantry units," Dillon explained. "They’ll be going into towns and engage with the female populace, and that’s their job, but because of that they’re going to be on the front lines, and we want to make sure they’re some of the first ones to be fitted with this armor.”
The FET will take the current trial vests on their deployment. But other female soldiers will have to wait. Full production is still more than a year away. Dillon says the army plans to test the new armor out on a full combat brigade next summer.