Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan – Last summer, prototypes for new female body armor was distributed to select female 101st Airborne Division Soldiers at Fort Campbell, KY, for field-testing during an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
Gender-specific body armor has been, in many ways, a long time coming. Military clothing classically comes in two sizes: too big or too small. While this may be workable for garrison duty uniforms, it isn’t acceptable for protective gear.
Body armor must sit snuggly for a proper fit, and not inhibit normal movement, such as walking, running, sitting or standing. Until recently, all Soldiers were issued the same basic type of armored vest for combat deployments, which, while purportedly unisex, made few accommodations for the female body.
“The size extra-small was too large for 85 percent of the females, so they weren’t getting a good fit,” said Lynn Hennessey, lead designer for the female body armor prototype being tested by Fort Campbell Soldiers, in an interview last summer with Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service. “And when they were sitting down, it was riding up to their chins, because the torso was so long.”
The new armor, while offering several additional sizing options, also accounts for the different proportions of the female body.
The torso is not only shorter, said U.S. Army Sgt. Stacey Coffield, of Orange County, CA, it’s also narrower in the shoulders.
Coffield, noncommissioned officer in charge of the brigade Female Engagement Team, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, was one of the Soldiers issued the new armor at Fort Campbell prior to her team’s deployment Afghanistan.
Coffield and her Soldiers have put the new gear through its paces on mounted and dismounted patrols throughout Nangarhar Province during their seven months in country.
“We’ve all kind of gone through our trial run using this vest,” Coffield said. “The side plates they issued us are a little smaller and a little lighter. They definitely fit a lot better as far as sitting on our hips.”
The new vests are quick-on, quick-off, with a few simple buckles instead of the layers of hook and loop fasteners of the previous generations of protective gear. Coffield and her team also have the option to wear a more basic plate carrier, which is almost equally conformable to body type, though it lacks the additional protective layers of Kevlar fabric that the vest sports. Both are quite the step up from the old improved outer tactical vest.
U.S. Army Spc. Bianca Beck, a member of Coffield’s FET, of Eagle Pass, Texas, said her experience with the new armor has been very positive.
Standing at 5 feet, 3 inches, Beck said the unisex armor would’ve left her swimming in her gear and unable to function effectively.
With the new gear, however, she said, “The mobility is a lot better; it’s a lot lighter and fits better.”
Though the approval process for the gear’s Army-wide distribution still requires input from more than two hardworking Soldiers, the future of female body armor looks bright.
Written by U.S. Army National Guard Spc. Margaret Taylor
129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment