Mystery, Debate over Body Armor

Federal investigators are looking into how a Massachusetts man was able to buy military-owned body armor over the Internet.

The case is a window into the national debate over whether US troops have the best protective gear.

WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.


MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: When Richard Warren of Falmouth was considering taking a contracting job in telecommunications in Iraq, he bought the normal equipment, including a satellite phone and body armor. And he found a great deal on eBay for armor.

RICHARD WARREN: It was listed as a Dragon Skin body armor which anybody over there or anybody who purchases body armor always agrees that's the best body armor you can buy.

BRADY-MYEROV: The Dragon Skin was one of three pieces of armor on eBay being sold by a man in Maryland who said the vest was new. But when Warren got it, it had clearly been shot more than 20 times, yet none of the bullets penetrated the vest. Warren is not a ballistics experts, but he believes the vest was shot with a high velocity bullet. He still wanted the vest to protect him in Iraq. But a few days later he heard from Homeland Security asking about it.

RICHARD WARREN: When I first got the call from Homeland Security, I thought it was a joke I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke on me.

BRADY-MYEROV: Warren got a letter from the US Government Accountability Office which said the vest was stolen from the Army after testing. The FBI came to his house and took the armor, after confirming the serial numbers on the vest matched those from a batch the Army bought about 2 years ago, tested, and claimed didn't work. EBay fully refunded Warren's $3,200 and says it has cooperated with the federal investigation. The Army did not return calls for comment.

The maker of Dragon Skin, Pinnacle Armor says Warren's vest proves their product works and the Army knows it. Pinnacle CEO Murray Neal.

MURRAY NEAL: The army said that we had failed catastrophically which was not the case. I was there with another one of my associates was there it's just a bunch of disinformation that went out.

BRADY-MYEROV: Two years ago Pinnacle filed suit against the Department of Justice for holding their body armor to a higher standard. Neal helped the FBI determine the vest was from the batch the Army tested and said didn't work.

All US troops wear Interceptor Body Armor, made by two other companies. But its effectiveness has been called into question. Roger Charles, a retired Marine Colonel with the advocacy group Soldiers for the Truth, says the Army knows the Interceptor armor sometimes shatters with the first bullet and it needs to share the data with Congress.

ROGER CHARLES: We've been told for two-and-a-half years now that there are just a number of cases out there, and these are antidotal reports back from troops that have been overseas but these reports say it has failed and there have been first round penetrations of the body armor, which the army in Congressional testimony has flatly said, has never happened.

BRADY-MYEROV: Two years ago the Army made an unprecedented move and forced all soldiers who had privately purchased Dragon Skin to forfeit it, without reimbursement, saying it was a safety issue.

As for Richard Warren, he's changed his mind about going to Iraq. But his experience with the federal government over his Dragon Skin armor left him with a strong impression.

RICHARD WARREN. Personally I think someone doesn't want to spend the money for the better body armor.

BRADY-MYEROV: Warren says online you can buy Interceptor body armor for around $400, but Dragon Skin, worn by many contractors and embedded journalists, sells for around $5000.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on July 22, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.


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