Spc. Arielle Mailloux gets some help adjusting her protoype Generation III Improved Outer Tactical Vest from Capt. Lindsey Pawlowski at Fort Campbell, Ky. (Army)
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Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.
As the Army prepares to give women expanded roles on combat missions, female warriors have been putting their newly designed body armor to the test in recent months.
The verdict: They say they are happy with it.
Capt. Lindsey Pawlowski, who heads female engagement teams in Afghanistan, said her soldiers have put away their plate carriers and have opted to wear the new Improved Outer Tactical Vest instead.
"If that's not a vote of confidence, I don't know what is," said Maj. Joel Dillon, assistant product manager for soft body armor.
Roughly 40 FET warriors in or headed to Afghanistan have tried the new body armor. Half are members of the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Campbell, Ky. The others are with the 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, out of Fort Stewart, Ga.
Twenty more are being sent to Special Operations Command to run the gear through its own wringers, Dillon said.
Another 3,000 sets in eight sizes will be fielded by a combat brigade next summer.
The changes culminate a two-year effort driven by feedback from Afghanistan vets.
The new body armor is designed to fix a number of issues women have had with it. The changes were driven by a number of after-action reports that addressed a poor, uncomfortable fit that led to reduced performance.
There were no reports of improper fit leading to injury, Dillon said. Size was the primary problem. Body armor was made for men. Even the extra-small sets were too large for 85 percent of the women, according to Army data.
The new, shorter IOTVs for women are designed to fit the female body shape, which tends to run shorter in the torso and longer in the legs than a man of the same height. That means no more getting hit in the chin or bruised on the hip when you sit down.
Other improvements include:
• A lighter design that evenly distributes weight across the torso instead of on the shoulders.
• Side plates go from seven to six inches, the same size used by the Marine Corps, to add two inches to the waist.
• Narrower shoulders to help you better seat your weapon.
Feedback from those evaluations led to an additional change. The ruck tended to sit on the attachment buckle on the shoulders. That buckle is being moved, Dillon said.
The Army put the new IOTVs to the test in the second half of this year. Users hit everything from obstacle courses and training lanes to rifle ranges and ruck marches. They wore the old gear, then the new. The results were "incredible."
"Female soldiers were able to move much more freely and with greater flexibility," Dillon said. "They were saying they could wear it all day long. One even said she could run a marathon in this."
The changes are not merely an effort to keep the status quo comfortable. The women who wear this gear will have an increasing role in future combat missions.
"It is clear that women have proven themselves in combat," Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Army Times. "We are now continuing to move forward. We have to do this in such a way that we continue to move slowly to make sure that we do this right as we continue to open up more and more positions."
Seventy-six percent of duty positions and 92 percent of military occupational specialties are open to women. And those numbers are expanding in 2013.
A recent six-month review in which women were assigned to nine infantry battalion and armor battalion headquarters sealed the decision to open all brigades down to battalion level for women.
Female engagement teams also will become permanent in the coming year.
Odierno is confident further jobs will open, but not until common standards are set.
"For me, it is about talent management," the chief said. "I want to make the best use of the talent that we have in our Army. That is regardless of male or female. There are some things that we still have to do. We have to come up with common standards in infantry and armor. ... Once that is done, we will look at how we integrate women into MOSs that are now closed."