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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2003

Schofield troops dressed in high-tech for Iraq duty

 •  Equipped for desert warfare

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — When Capt. Bill Venable's infantry company goes on patrol in Iraq, his 140 soldiers will have some of the best and latest gear the Army has to offer.

8,300 soldiers deploy next year

Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, is allowing The Advertiser to spend time with its soldiers and report on training and activities as it prepares for deployment to Iraq. About 4,800 Hawai'i soldiers will be in Iraq next year, and another 3,500 soldiers will leave for Afghanistan.

Standing next to a combat-ready sergeant, he ticked off the list: An M-4 rifle with "red dot" sights that provide "dramatic, dramatic improvements in target acquisition."

A $2,500 monocular night-vision device that's the latest generation, like the infrared sighting laser used with it that came in just last week.

There are Wiley X goggles that look like hip sunglasses, Kevlar fiber gloves, elbow and knee pads, and a new modular load-bearing vest with water Camelback and 70-ounce capacity.

At a staging point in Kuwait, Iraq-bound Schofield soldiers will pick up new lightweight combat helmets and ceramic plates for "Interceptor Body Armor" heralded for its ability to stop 7.62 mm rifle rounds, the most common in Iraq.

"This guy right here, and other guys like him, is what the anti-coalition forces are going to be facing when we get off the airplane," Venable said of the sergeant next to him.

Since October, the 25th Infantry Division (Light) has committed more than $12 million to improve the "force-protection" capabilities of about 8,000 soldiers deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, adding an extra level of reassurance for troops.

The investment is largely the result of a "Rapid Fielding Initiative" begun with lessons learned from Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Stung by complaints of poor quality and reports of soldiers shelling out as much as $1,000 of their own money for commercially available replacement gear, the Army cut through red tape to speed procurement of essential items, providing in months or weeks what used to take years.

According to the Army's Program Executive Office, an average of $14.8 million is being spent on upgrades per brigade combat team.

New body armor a plus

At Schofield, Venable's confidence is shared by his soldiers, who will be carrying about $6,000 apiece in high-tech weaponry and other combat gear.

About 4,800 Hawai'i soldiers are deploying in January and February for a year of duty in Iraq, followed by 3,500 soldiers who will leave for Afghanistan in April.

"The Interceptor Body Armor, knowing that it will stop a 7.62 round, is definitely a boost to confidence," said Cpl. Christopher Miller, 23, who's gong to Iraq with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment.

Soldiers have been shot, and sometimes shot again, but been able to return fire uninjured because of the vests, which will be provided to every Hawai'i soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's pretty big as far as just your thought processes. It's just one more thing that will help you perform your job," said Cpl. Joshua Newbrough, 25, also with the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry. "When you are clearing a room and there might be a weapon pointed right back at you, you have that split second where he might get off a shot, but you know (the vest) is going to stop it."

Production of the new body armor was lagging demand, and acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee said during a stop at Wheeler Army Airfield in November that all active-duty and Reserve forces in theater would have the added protection by the end of this month.

"Every soldier in theater will have it. That wasn't the requirement when we went there," Brownlee said. "It was intended only for the front-line soldiers that we thought would be in the closest contact with the enemy."

But with attacks rampant on convoys and checkpoints, the decision was made to equip all soldiers.

'MOLLE' vests more versatile

The gear being provided also offers greater comfort and utility. The new Advanced Combat Helmet is cut higher in the back to provide greater mobility after soldiers complained their old helmets hit the top of their vests in a prone position. The new helmet also is a half pound lighter.

The body armor also provides greater mobility, and at 16 pounds, is lighter than the 25-pound version worn by soldiers in Somalia.

Another addition is the Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment. The "MOLLE" vest allows soldiers to reconfigure how they carry equipment.

"If you are right-handed, left-handed, you may want your (ammunition) magazines in a different place or your flashlight or any other things for a search (more readily available)," Newbrough said.

Soldiers are also getting added protection in other ways.

Maj. Bob Lehman, the 25th Division's deputy logistics officer, said helicopter pilots heading to Iraq and Afghanistan asked for M-4 rifles, and got them.

"If they go down they've got to have some stand-off capability (beyond 9 mm pistols)," Lehman said.

Of the more than 100 Humvees the 25th Division shipped out on the USNS Pililaau from Ford Island on Thursday, about 20 are heavily armored, similar to bank trucks, with bullet-proof glass.

The "up-armored" Humvees, which weigh more than 10,000 pounds — nearly twice the weight of a regular four-seater — provide extra protection against roadside bombs.

Ring mounts also were added to top portholes in trucks and Humvees so soldiers can mount machine guns.

"What you are looking at is the ability to provide convoy security," Lehman said. "That's a priority for everyone there."

All wish-list items approved

Additionally, about 100 Kevlar "blankets" providing ballistic protection for vehicles are making their way to Kuwait for the subsequent convoy trip into Iraq. In theater, 25th soldiers will pick up other armored Humvees.

"Anything that affords additional force protection such as Kevlar blankets, up-armored Humvees, chemical suits, are being left in country for forces rotating in," Lehman said.

Venable, who commands Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, said he appreciates the emphasis the chain of command put on getting new gear. Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, commander of the 25th Division, queried all of the company commanders "about what they want to go to combat with," Venable said.

"And everything I had on my list is on the purchase list or the fielding list," he said.

Miller said the Camelbacks are "something that in the past wasn't an issued item, and a lot of soldiers were going out and purchasing them."

"But now they are being issued to us," he said. "It's definitely nice. You can never get enough water."

Staff Sgt. Glen DeMarcus, who has been in the Army 5 1/2 years, said he has "a lot of confidence" in the new gear.

"I'll be a lot happier when we get in theater and we can switch out the helmet and get the ceramic (body armor) plates in," he said.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.

• • •

Equipped for desert warfare

Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) will carry the latest in protection and fighting gear when they deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan in February and April. A fully equipped soldier will carry about $6,000 worth of gear. Some of the equipment upgrades:

Night-vision device
The $2,500 AN/PVS-14D lightweight monocular device lets soldiers quickly transition from dark to lighted conditions. Can be mounted on rifle.
Water supply
Tubular Hydration System integrates into the rucksack/assault pack. 70-ounce capacity.

Optic sight
Close Combat Optic sight uses red dot for targeting that soldiers say is a big improvement over "iron" sights on rifle.
Laser pointer
Infrared laser pointer pinpoints a target while a soldier is wearing a night-vision device.

The helmet shown here will be replaced with the Advanced Combat Helmet, which is a 1/2-pound lighter and cut higher.

Wiley X goggles
Resemble sunglasses but have foam seals. Ballistic polycarbonate lenses are interchangeable for day and night.

Body armor
Interceptor Body Armor weighs 16.4 pounds (gear worn in Somalia weighed 25 pounds) and has front and back boron carbide ceramic plates capable of stopping 7.62 mm rifle rounds, the most commonly used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MOLLE vest
The Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment (MOLLE) vest has packs and pouches and can be custom-configured. It is designed to fit with the Interceptor Body Armor.

M4 Carbine
A shorter, lighter version of the M16A2 rifle, used for close combat. It's easier to carry than a full-length rifle and fires a 5.56 mm round.

M40 chemical and biological protective mask with improved face seal, longer life and greater soldier comfort.

Above: Staff Sgt. Glen DeMarcus, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment. Research by William Cole; Photographs by Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser
Sources: 25th Infantry Division; peosoldier.army.mil