NATICK, Mass. -- Female Soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., preparing for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan are getting a chance to weigh in on the latest innovation in personal protective equipment: body armor designed specifically to fit them.
Any woman who has deployed to the combat zone can tell you what's wrong with wearing the improved outer tactical vest, or IOTV -- military-speak for body armor -- it's designed for a man's body.
"Women were having a real problem with the fit of the IOTV," said Lynn Hennessey, lead designer for the female body armor prototype being tested at Fort Campbell. "The size extra-small was too large for 85 percent of the females, so they weren't getting a good fit. It was too loose and too long."
That left vulnerabilities where the body armor left gaps, particularly under the arms. But it also made the vests uncomfortable enough to affect performance, Hennessey explained.
In some cases, women were reporting bruising on their hip bones because the side plates dragged down to their hips, she said. "And when they were sitting down, it was riding up to their chins, because the torso was so long."
This kind of feedback, both anecdotal and through a formal process of surveys and focus groups, led the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center here to launch a program to design female-specific body armor.
The program kicked off in January 2011, with prototypes now undergoing testing by members of the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team.
To design the new vests, the design team studied anthropometric data -- a series of measurements to reflect the size and shape of female Soldiers' bodies, with a particular focus on the bust, torso length and shoulders.
"Females are not small males," said Beverly Kimball, project engineer for female Army aviation combat uniforms also being developed at Natick. "We have specific proportions that require designs for fit and function for uniforms as well as equipment."
The Natick team came up with eight different sizes of female body armor, in two different lengths, to accommodate the force. Although the vests use the same protective plates as the generic body armor, the side plates are slightly scaled down to fit the new contours.
During the initial fit tests, 120 female Soldiers at Fort Campbell, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; Fort Benning, Ga.; and an Army Reserve Center in Milford, Mass., gave the prototypes a resounding thumbs-up.
"It was immediate love," Hennessey said. "As soon as they put them on, they would say, 'I can't believe this is the same body armor. Because of the fit, it felt so much lighter and so much better balanced."
But even before those first 24 prototypes were fielded, Hennessey and her team already were at work improving them. She added darts to the side and bottom of the vest to draw it closer to the body and provide better coverage. She made minor improvements to the buckles to make them fit together better, and incorporated some of the improvements from the third-generation unisex body armor.
Of the 100 second-generation female body armor prototypes, 19 were issued to Fort Campbell Soldiers in mid-August.
Soldiers who participated in the test are assigned to a female engagement team that will interact closely with the Afghan population, particularly women, when they deploy later this year. The plan, Hennessey explained, was to let the Soldiers get accustomed to wearing the new body armor and then to train in it for about five weeks. This week, they are wrapping up a human factors evaluation that includes such things as weapons firing and climbing in and out of vehicles -- all of the things the Soldiers are likely to do in combat.
The project team will assess the feedback to determine if the female body armor is ready for fielding throughout the Army.
Army officials hope to produce 3,000 of the new vests and to field them to an Army brigade to be selected next year as a major step in that direction.
"This is a project that will have a direct impact on the Soldiers who wear this," Hennessey said. "It will make them a lot more comfortable -- but even more important, safer and more effective."