Hawaii soldier’s wife ridicules advice to doff body armor in Iraq State to honor 28 troops who paid ultimate price
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
When he was hit by a roadside bomb and flung through the air while walking through a northern Iraqi town, Schofield Barracks soldier Spc. Peter Bland was wearing his body armor and helmet.
Staff Sgt. Alan Conway was not. Nor were five other U.S. personnel, most of them from Schofield.
Shrapnel hit Bland's spine. Conway had a 9-inch gash in his back, and his tricep "looked like a rabid dog attacked him," his wife said.
A lieutenant who wasn't wearing the protective gear was partially eviscerated. An Iraqi linguist, also not wearing a helmet or Kevlar vest, nearly had his leg blown off.
"It's really a miracle no one was killed, honestly," Bland said of the July 12, 2009, attack.
Bland and some other soldiers who were there that day said Schofield Barracks' 3rd Brigade Combat Team pressured reconstruction team leaders to leave body armor and helmets behind in vehicles during visits with Iraqi counterparts.
Bland didn't like it one bit.
"It elevated our risk matrix severely," said Bland, 32, who was part of a four-man security element for the less protected soldiers. "It put us in a very vulnerable position."
Shortages of body armor early in the Iraq war caused an uproar.
Bland and Conway's wife, Ashleigh, both stepped forward to call attention to the practice that's just the opposite — leaving body armor off, a technique increasingly being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's one that they say puts troops at greater risk, and the July 12 attack is proof of that.
Ashleigh Conway spoke about the incident because her husband didn't have approval to do so. Alan Conway is an Army reservist who worked with Schofield soldiers in a civil affairs capacity.
Doffing body armor has become part of a U.S. counterinsurgency campaign to win the hearts, minds and trust of the local populace by removing intimidating barriers — and sometimes that means protective gear.
In both Iraq and Afghan- istan, U.S. commanders are trying to engage more with the people, but not wearing body armor means walking a dangerous line between trust and informality, and life-saving protection.
Top U.S. military commanders sometimes are photographed sans body armor and helmets in war-zone markets in a symbolic show of security gains.
What's not shown is the firepower security bubble surrounding them.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, created some controversy in 2007 when he visited an open-air Baghdad market to demonstrate stability and security improvement and said Americans were "not getting the full picture" of what was going on in Iraq.
NBC reported, however, that 100 American soldiers, three Black Hawk helicopters and two Apache gunships were shadowing McCain.
Security has certainly improved markedly in Iraq, and not wearing body armor in some villages has become one of the more common demonstrations of U.S. troop trust in their foreign-nation hosts.
The practice has extended to some parts of Afghanistan as well.
That's fine, said Ashleigh Conway, who lives with her husband in Texas. Just don't make it an order that soldiers have to leave their body armor behind, she said.
"If some guys are just so in love with the Iraqis that they want to show their trust, then I guess if they are crazy enough to do that, then go for it," she said. "But I just can't believe that they would require them not to wear it."
Security may have improved in Iraq, she added, but U.S. troops still are being killed.
The 3rd Brigade deployed to northern Iraq in October 2008 and returned by November 2009.
Schofield officials note that before July 12 there had been no attacks in Sharqat in Salah ad Din province, the town where Bland, Conway and others were wounded. The focus was on a variety of reconstruction projects.
Sharqat and some surrounding villages, with about 100,000 people, are at a crossroads between Mosul and Kirkuk.
Ashleigh Conway said not wearing body armor into meetings with Iraqi officials was a recommendation at first, but by about May 2009 "it became a policy of you have to take your body armor off and leave it in the vehicles before you go into these meetings."
Her husband twice refused, and the second time he was called a coward by an officer, she said.
He finally relented, she said, because he felt there would be repercussions if he didn't go along with the directive.
Before he was wounded and evacuated from Iraq, he had to leave his body armor in vehicles on missions at least two to three times a week, Ashleigh Conway said.
"To me, this seemed ridiculous," she said. "As taxpayers, we are paying so much money for their gear. I can't even tell you how much money their gear costs — and then to just leave it in the vehicle?"
Col. Walter Piatt, who commanded the approximately 3,500 soldiers in 3rd Brigade in Iraq and now back at Schofield, said there was no order to not wear body armor.
"My guidance was that commanders at every level would determine the force protection equipment required to accomplish the mission," he said.
That guidance went to high-level government meetings "inside a very well-furnished office with a mayor or a provincial representative who was wearing a thousand-dollar suit or a very nice dress and the furniture is very expensive," Piatt said. "I told our soldiers we should not be wearing our kit (body armor) in those rooms because we'll destroy the furniture."
Commanders could decide to keep body armor on, leave it in vehicles, or take it off in an antechamber at a meeting, he said.
Piatt also said it was "key leaders" only who would leave their body armor in a vehicle. Even without body armor, the soldiers retained their weapons. There also always was a security element wearing all protective gear that accompanied those soldiers.
Bland said "guidance" is the same as an order. When a commander gives guidance or a suggestion, "it's exactly the same as giving an order. It's just more politely phrased."
Capt. Jason Honeycutt, who is in charge of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, and the commander for the mission, said he was not aware of Conway's claim that he was badgered about his desire to keep on his body armor on missions.
Honeycutt said one of his platoon leaders didn't feel comfortable removing his body armor and "there was no pressure to have him remove it, and there were no repercussions toward him for not removing it."
Conway's wife's account of what was ordered differs from Piatt's version, but Piatt did say Conway was a "brilliant man" whose rebuilding efforts were very successful.
Maj. Cathy Wilkinson, a 3rd Brigade spokeswoman, said throughout the brigade area in Iraq, a similar policy was in place for body armor.
"That was the call of the commander on the ground, 'Hey, if I can, if it's safe, the people going in, go ahead and ground your gear, either in the truck or outside in the antechamber or somewhere in the building,' " she said.
Wilkinson said it was unfortunate that soldiers got wounded in Sharqat. She noted that the mission in Iraq had largely changed from one of fighting to rebuilding, and that brought changed practices.
"This is kind of the fight that's going on now. You've got people going to meetings and helping out," she said.
On July 12, 2009, four soldiers were fully outfitted, Bland among them, and surrounding six other U.S. personnel not wearing body armor or helmets when the bomb went off about 10 feet behind the group, Bland said.
The troops were leaving a weekly meeting with the mayor, local sheik and Iraqi police. The vehicles were more than a football field's distance away.
Bland, who was in the Marine Corps for five years and now has been in the Army for four years, said shrapnel was stopped by a plate in the back of his body armor and by his helmet.
But a piece the size of a thumbnail knifed through winglike structures on the side of his spine that are intended to protect nerve clusters, he said.
A nerve was severed that controls testicular pain. The Seattle man said if he walks more than a mile and a half he is in serious pain.
Alan Conway, 26, who has a master's degree and wants to teach high school English, suffers back pain from his injury, and can't stand for more than two hours at a time.
An informal investigation was conducted into the incident by Schofield officials with a finding of no wrongdoing. Piatt, the brigade commander, said Honeycutt "reacted within guidelines."
"I think Capt. Honeycutt and all his soldiers did all the right things," Piatt said. There was a "bad outcome" because the enemy exploited constraints on the U.S. soldiers, such as the predictable nature of the weekly meetings in Sharqat.
Bland now uses a cane, takes a nerve-blocker and other medications as a result of his injuries, and is in the process of being medically discharged from the Army.
The six U.S. personnel not wearing body armor that day were clustered together instead of spread out in a standard formation, Bland said. Had all the soldiers been wearing body armor and separated, the outcome might have been different.
"This is responsible for quite a lot of anger and frustration on my part, personally, to have to live with this. I'm in pain — all — the — time," he said, pounding his fist on a table.
He sought an inspector general investigation through the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield because "no one explained why we were walking around Iraq without body armor."
He received a response saying an inquiry was completed, but nothing else.
Ashleigh Conway said "no justice can be done for us. Alan has this wound in his back that he's always going to have. It's never going to fix anything for us, but I have friends whose husbands are still over there, and for them to be forced (to leave behind their body armor), it just seems so reckless.
"The only thing I want to see is for guys to at least have the option."