Body Armor Saves 'Lucky' Marine in Iraq



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Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Dempsey has high praise for the body armor he wears, even though many complain it's too heavy for patrolling in the unforgiving heat of the Iraqi desert. A sniper's bullet left a poker-chip-sized hole in the Marine's armor, but the equipment saved his life.

"I'm standing here in front of you," he says. "I can tell you it's effective."

Dustin Kirby, a Navy medical corpsman who treated Dempsey after the incident, says Dempsey received a painful bruise, but was otherwise OK. If he had been wearing an older version of the armor plates, Kirby says, Dempsey would have likely died or been paralyzed.

"If he was wearing the old [equipment, the bullet] would have gone right through," Kirby says. "Right through. Best-case scenario: He would have lived the rest of his life paralyzed, you know from the mid-level back down... Worst-case scenario, he would have bled out."

Dempsey, a 33-year-old platoon commander from Jersey City, N.J., says he feels "very lucky."

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In the World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, it was said that every soldier believes in chance but trusts his luck.

NPR's Tom Bowman spoke with the Marine serving in Anbar Province in Iraq about the luck that saved his life.

TOM BOWMAN: Gunnery Sergeant Shawn Dempsey has high praise for the body armor he wears, even though many complain it's too heavy for patrolling in the unforgiving desert heat.

Mr. SHAWN DEMPSEY (U.S. Marines): I'm standing here in front of you. I can tell you it's effective.

BOWMAN: There's a hole in the back of Dempsey's body armor. It's about the size of a poker chip and frayed at the edges. He got that hole a week earlier, after the Marines arrived for a meeting with Iraqi officials. The Marines fanned out in front of a building, casting a wide security net. Dempsey recalls what happened next in the rapid-fire delivery of Jersey City.

Mr. DEMPSEY: There's a little kid. He's about 10, 12 years old, he's trying to come through. My gunner stopped him and I went over to talk to the kid. And I was walking with the kid around the cordon, take him around it. Next thing I know, I heard a loud bang and felt a pop. I fell face first on the ground, saw dust come up. For a minute I thought I stepped on a mine or something.

BOWMAN: Dempsey struggled to his feet. The kid ran off. Dempsey made a dizzying line back to his Humvee.

Mr. DEMPSEY: Talked to my gunner, said, hey, I think I got shot. He goes, yep, you got shot. And he was looking in the direction to see where, you know, the shot might have come from. But there's people in the market and people heard the shot, they started running.

BOWMAN: The Marines loaded Dempsey into a Humvee and quickly found their commanding officer. The convoy raced to a nearby police station. Dustin Kirby(ph), a Navy medical corpsman, was waiting.

Mr. DUSTIN KIRBY (Medical Corpsman, U.S. Navy): We got a call that somebody got shot, shot in the SAPI plate.

BOWMAN: SAPI stands for small arms protection insert. It fits in a sleeve inside the vest. It's rock hard and slightly curved. It's about the size of a cereal box, just not as thick. The bullet bore only a quarter-inch into the plate. But Kirby worried the blunt force of the bullet could cause internal injuries. He tore off Dempsey's vest and uniform.

Mr. KIRBY: Took off the SAPI plate, took a look. He just had a really big bruise on his back and said he was in pain. Other than that, he was fine.

BOWMAN: Pretty lucky?

Mr. KIRBY: Oh yeah, very lucky. Very lucky.

BOWMAN: Dempsey was wearing the newest kinds of plates. They offer more protection than the ones Marines were wearing as early as this spring.

Mr. KIRBY: If they had had the old SAPIs, it would've gone right through, right through. Best case scenario, he'd have lived his life paralyzed from, you know, mid-level back down and everything like that. Worst case scenario, he would've bled out.

BOWMAN: The bullet that hit Dempsey came from a Russian sniper's rifle, a Dragunov. A well-placed sniper's shot is one of the greatest fears in Iraq these days, especially in Anbar and the teaming Baghdad neighborhoods.

After he was shot, Dempsey wanted to call his father first. His dad fought in Vietnam and was wounded there. He could better explain what happened to Dempsey's wife, Leslie, and his two son's, Johnny and Joey. But he couldn't reach his dad so he reluctantly called his wife.

Mr. DEMPSEY: And I told her - I was like, hey, how's it going? The usual. She's like, oh, everything's great. You know, how are you? I'm like, fine. Just got to let you know, I got hurt today, but I'm fine. You know, I got a bruise. Things okay. And she asked what happened. I told her, I got shot. And of course, she was - how did you get shot and only have a bruise?

BOWMAN: Dempsey tears at the Velcro on his vest. He pulls out his new SAPI plate and raps his knuckles against it.

(Soundbite of tapping)

BOWMAN: When Dempsey gets home, he says he will mount his damaged SAPI plate on a wooden plaque with his name, the date he was shot - September 17, 2006 - and perhaps a line from a rock song: I get knocked down, but I get up again.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Anbar Province.

(Soundbite of song “Tubthumping”)

CHUMBAWAMBA (Rock Band): (Singing) I get knocked down but I get up again. You're never going to keep me down. I get knocked down but I get up again. You're never going to keep me down. I get knocked down but I get up again. You're never going to keep me down. I get knocked down but I get up again. You're never going to keep me down. Pissing the night away. Pissing the night away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.