The Marine Corps issued to nearly 10,000 troops body armor that government experts urged the Corps to reject after tests revealed critical, life-threatening flaws in the vests.
In all, the Marine Corps accepted about 19,000 Interceptor outer tactical vests from Point Blank Body Armor Inc. that failed government tests due to "multiple complete penetrations" of 9mm pistol rounds, failing scores on other ballistic or quality-assurance tests, or a combination of the two.
"Since these are lifesaving pieces of equipment and are being used in support of the Iraq war, I urge immediate action since this technical office has little confidence in the performance of the items to provide the contracted levels of protection as defined in the performance specification," wrote ballistics expert James MacKiewicz in a memorandum rejecting two lots of vests on July 19, 2004.
MacKiewicz is responsible for verifying that each production lot of Marine vests meets protective requirements and other quality standards. He works at the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., and has 18 years of experience with ballistics and armor systems.
A second government agency, the Defense Contract Management Agency, backed Natick's conclusion and also recommended against the waivers.
"Anything less than full compliance for a safety item such as the [Interceptor body armor] is unacceptable," DCMA wrote in a 2004 memorandum recommending that the Corps reject the vests .
But according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with officials at Natick, the Marine Corps and Point Blank, the service rejected that advice. Instead, the Marine program manager responsible for fielding the vests, Lt. Col. Gabriel Patricio, and Point Blank's chief operating officer, Sandra Hatfield signed waivers that allowed the Corps to buy and distribute vests that failed to meet the Corps' minimum standards and specifications.
Faced with the imminent publication of this story, the result of an eight-month investigation by Marine Corps Times, the Marine Corps on May 4 issued a Corpswide message recalling 5,277 Interceptor vests from 11 lots that failed government ballistic performance tests - slightly more than half the total vests issued to Marines from questionable lots.
The Corps has not said what it intends to do with the more than 4,000 other vests the testers urged to be rejected that are now being worn by Marines. Nor has it said what it will do with the remaining 10,000 that it accepted over the objections of the test labs but which haven't been fielded.
Despite signed waivers acknowledging that the vests were substandard, the Marine Corps questioned the accuracy of the government test results all along. The Corps pulled samples from some of the challenged lots and had them tested at a private, commercial lab.
Patricio and other officials with Marine Corps Systems Command at Quantico, Va., said the second tests show that the vests meet safety standards and do not put Marines at increased risk of injury.
"I did not ignore warnings or advice from my staff. I simply looked at all the factors involved as the program manager and made the decision that I needed to make based on all the information that I had," Patricio said in a May 3 telephone interview. "The decision was mine and within my immediate authority as program manager" to waiver and accept the rejected vests. Patricio recently retired from the Corps and now works as an independent acquisitions consultant.
While each vest has a unique serial number on it, Point Blank would not provide a list of serial numbers from the lots Natick said should be rejected. Point Blank said that information was "proprietary."
Corps officials initially would not provide lot or serial number data to Marine Corps Times; when Patricio was asked in the May 3 interview if he could locate the vests and recall them if ordered to do so, a Corps spokesman abruptly ended the interview and hung up.
But a day later, the Marine Corps listed the serial numbers that correspond to the 11 production lots in a Corpswide message the service is calling a "precautionary recall."
The message did not state how Marines could determine whether their vest belongs to one of the nine other production lots that didn't pass muster at Natick.
The Corps faces serious challenges in even locating the vests it plans to pull back. Because lot numbers, serial numbers and other manufacturing data are handwritten on body armor labels, the writing is sometimes smeared, faded or otherwise illegible.
The commander of Marine Corps Systems Command, Brig. Gen. William Catto, refused to be interviewed. But in a written statement, he acknowledged that problem, saying "every effort will be made to locate the waived vests, with the understanding that some may not be detectable due to normal wear and tear or other reasons associated with deployed conditions."
The Army also buys body armor from Point Blank, but service officials said they have bought several versions of the Point Blank vest and that they never accepted vests from lots that failed testing.
Facing two upcoming seven-month rotations of about 25,000 leathernecks to Iraq and ongoing deployments to Afghanistan, field commanders urged Systems Command to supply their units with vests, command officials said.
"At this critical moment, are we sure these are bad lots? Are these lots that we're sure we do not want to put into the fight? ... That's a judgment call," said Lt. Col. Shawn Reinwald, director of combat equipment and support systems for Systems Command. Reinwald was Patricio's boss briefly after joining Systems Command in late 2004.
"Had we had a lot of schedule to play with, we might have slowed down. ... The schedule was bearing down on us."
The judgment call fell to Patricio, who over 10 months last year would waive and accept at least 20 lots of outer tactical vests that didn't pass muster with government testers.
Systems Command did not inform field commanders about the waivers when the equipment was distributed, Reinwald said.
Patricio said he briefed Catto in February 2004 when the first waivers were issued, as well as in subsequent meetings on procurement of various types of armor to protect Marines and their equipment from the growing threat of insurgent attacks in Iraq.
In his written statement, Catto said he agreed with the decision to issue the waivers.
"I concurred with the program manager's decision to waive the 11 lots in order to rapidly replace the PASGT flaks with a superior, advanced body-armor system," Catto said in the statement. "Due to the massive deployment associated with [Operation Iraqi Freedom], this was considered to be an urgent need, and was deemed to be in the best interest of deployed Marines at that time."
Both Reinwald and Patricio said the notion of redistributing Interceptor vests already fielded among deploying forces was considered, but deemed too difficult to execute in time for the deployments.
"This was one of these situations where they're screaming for these OTVs [and] these guys have to get them," Reinwald said. "At that time, we had the operational requirement that we didn't have the schedule to play with."
The waivers came at a time when U.S. forces were facing increased risk from roadside bombs, ambushes and intense urban combat. The military rushed to field the Interceptor armor to all its troops, not just those typically involved in close combat, pushing the vests to the field as quickly as they were produced.
Systems Command officials responsible for developing and issuing the Interceptor vests argue that since the vest is worn in concert with the armor insert plates, the combined system offers more protection than the older personnel armor system for ground troops, or PASGT, that it replaced.
The Interceptor outer vest protects the wearer against 9mm rounds and shrapnel; a pair of armor insert plates offer additional protection against small-arms fire up to 7.62mm. Interceptor affords 10 percent greater protection against shrapnel threats than the PASGT vests, according to Army officials.
All vests stand some chance of failing, but the vests issued to Marines from waivered lots have a greater chance of being penetrated than vests that met Natick's test criteria, experts there said.
"You have an increased risk of ballistic incident - statistically" with these vests, said Bob Kinney, director of the individual protection office at Natick. Kinney has worked on individual protection equipment such as chemical and biological defense suits and body armor at Natick for more than two decades.
The Marine Corps has been buying its Interceptor body armor vests through the Army's Soldier Systems Center since 1999. Natick manages the contract and tests random samples of each production lot at Aberdeen Test Center, Md., to ensure the vests meet specifications. Aberdeen is the Army's chartered agency for ballistic quality assurance verification. The Army does not conduct its testing at Aberdeen, however, instead using commercial labs because of their independence from the service and the speed with which they deliver test results.
The Marine Corps' assertion that the 19,000 vests meet ballistic specifications is based in part on results from additional tests conducted at a private test lab, H.P. White of Street, Md.
Systems Command subjected some of the rejected lots - a batch comprising about 8,000 vests - to additional testing at H.P. White and obtained results that command officials said were satisfactory.
But the ballistics experts at Natick recommended against fielding any vests until they could identify and resolve the larger issue behind the vests' declining quality.
"Based on ballistic test data and previously identified quality assurance failures, I do not recommend acceptance of these lots and do not recommend acceptance of future lots until this issue is resolved," MacKiewicz wrote in an August 24, 2004, memo failing two lots .
The memo is one of many that MacKiewicz drafted from as early as January 2003, warning of poor ballistic test results and recommending the Marine Corps solve the problem before shipping any more vests to its troops.
It is unclear whether any Marine casualties in Iraq have resulted from shrapnel or bullets that have penetrated vests distributed from the lots in question. A data sample from the Navy/Marine Corps Combat Trauma Registry provided by the Marine Corps shows that of 692 Marines wounded in Iraq between March 2004 and January 2005, eight were struck on the vest, and only two were penetrated: a fragment from a rocket-propelled grenade and shrapnel from a roadside bomb.
The Interceptor body armor has been credited across the services with saving thousands of lives.
The Army and Marine Corps fielded Interceptor body armor in limited quantities during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and ramped up production and fielding for Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath. By the time the Iraq war began in March 2003, the Corps had distributed 131,300 vests and 71,000 armor plates. As of November of that year, an additional 12,200 vests and 12,400 plates had been distributed.
One beneficiary of that increased production: Point Blank Body Armor, a subsidiary of New York-based DHB Industries, which has expanded dramatically to meet the demand. In less than three months in early 2004, the company opened two new manufacturing plants in Florida, expanding its operations to meet the Army and Marines' demand for more than 1 million vests.
Buying vests and armor
As program manager, it fell to Patricio to purchase more than 190,000 Interceptor vests and armor plates for the Corps.
During his tenure at Systems Command, the logistics officer handled at least two high-profile acquisition programs.
Patricio led the development of the new pixel-pattern combat utility uniform that debuted to rave reviews in January 2002. Later, he oversaw the pack evaluation process that yielded the new Individual Load Bearing Equipment rucksack. That pack, the Corps' replacement for the failed Modular, Lightweight Load-bearing Equipment, or MOLLE, system, was unveiled in August 2003. "This is a guy who can get things done," said Reinwald of Patricio.
And that's just what the Corps needed in late 2003.
Facing mounting pressure to acquire body armor quickly because of upcoming deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and armed with the final orders to close out the Corps' vest procurement plan, Patricio had little maneuver room on the vest program.
The first vest failures had come to light in mid-January 2003, as officials with Point Blank notified Marine contract officers of problems at their Oakland Park, Fla., test facility. Hatfield told Marine Corps Times the failures stemmed from improper testing equipment at their ballistic lab.
Over the next year, Natick officials assumed responsibility for testing vests from Point Blank as they investigated why the original failures occurred.
In December 2003, contract officers and testers discovered that multiple vests from two other lots failed ballistic tests, this time at the Aberdeen facility.
Vests from lots 69-9 and 69-12 suffered multiple penetrations of 9mm bullets at speeds below 1,525 feet per second. When gauging performance of a vest against that contract benchmark, testers expect that rounds will penetrate half of the time.
Those penetrations were of particular concern because previous tests yielded passing results at an average velocity of 1,620 feet per second, well above the contract benchmark, according to a document written by Mike Codega, a technical representative at Natick who worked with MacKiewicz on the Marine vest program. Also a point of concern was the complete penetration of a vest from lot 69-12. This one was below 1,450 feet per second, a speed at which no vest penetration should occur.
"I recommended we do more testing to validate or to confirm or to find out what happened," MacKiewicz said in an April 8 interview at Natick. "And as I continued to test, I got more failures ... it continued, it didn't stop. Which is strange because we had had about four years of experience where we had no problem whatsoever."
In further tests of lots 69-9 and 69-12, as well as four additional lots, MacKiewicz and his colleagues noticed a continued decline in the Point Blank armor's ballistic strength. Some of the vests were also showing deep indentations - though not penetrations - at speeds that, taken together with the full penetrations in earlier lots and the fact that the indentations were deeper than they should have been, prompted testers to raise a red flag.
"It shouldn't have happened ... because it was a known system for four years and the results were very high" during previous tests on earlier lots, MacKiewicz said. "To get results that low was very concerning - it was odd to us."
When presented with the evidence of failures and the testers' worries, Patricio questioned Aberdeen's test procedures. In late 2003, in an effort to determine whether testing methodology there was to blame, Patricio brought in H.P. White, the commercial ballistics testing company, to review those same lots.
An Aberdeen Test Center spokeswoman declined to comment on doubts about the testing results and methodology expressed by Point Blank and the Marine Corps.
In reviewing results from both facilities, Patricio wondered why samples from the same lot were passing at H.P. White and at Point Blank's test site but not at Aberdeen, according to Patricio's waiver request for lots 69-9 and 69-12 and other documents.
"H.P. White and the contractor's range have produced passing results for the lots in question while ATC's data fails the lots," Patricio wrote in a Feb. 2, 2004, memo explaining his waiver of lots 69-9 and 69-12. "This matter will not be resolved until the Natick technical representatives are able to make a determination regarding the underlying factors of the conflicting data."
In the memo, Patricio pointed the finger at Aberdeen's test procedures and asked MacKiewicz and his team to evaluate testing at all three locations to "determine the causes of the discrepancies and correct the inconsistencies."
"Failing or passing anything - that's a matter of some testing procedures and interpretations," Patricio said in the May 3 interview.
Point Blank officials agree with Patricio, saying the vests did not fail follow-up tests at independent labs and were therefore safe to field.
Hatfield, however, refused to name any of the sources who she said verified the performance of the failed lots.
"We see no reason to be concerned that the quality has deteriorated or that the performance has deteriorated in any fashion," said Hatfield, Point Blank's chief operating officer, in an April 20 interview at her Pompano Beach production facility in Florida.
Natick officials who investigated the test procedures at Aberdeen and H.P. White found no differences in the test procedures that would cause such divergent test results.
"No issues ... relating to instrumentation, test procedure or test facility set-up was found," Codega wrote in the memo reviewing the failure of lots 69-9 and 69-12.
In fact, said H.P. White President Donald Dunn in an interview, in many cases his test facility fails products that Aberdeen Test Center has previously passed, arguing that his testing procedures are as stringent, if not more so, than those of Aberdeen. He declined to comment specifically on any testing of Marine vests that failed at Aberdeen.
Problems with the Point Blank vest design used by the Marine Corps keep cropping up. For example, as part of the competition for an Army vest contract late last year, that same model of Point Blank's Interceptor vest failed ballistic tests that simulate shrapnel hits, according to Karl Masters, the lead engineer for the Army's Interceptor body armor program. That test - a lower standard than for 9mm rounds - was conducted by H.P. White.
Masters noted that his comments were in reference to the Army vest program and declined to speculate on the Marine Corps vest issues.
Though the Army awarded Point Blank the contract after all, it bought vests of a different design than the Marine Corps model, said Army Col. John Norwood, the head of Project Manager Soldier Equipment, the Army office that oversees development of individual gear.
When asked in an interview whether he suspected any material or manufacturing flaw in the vests might be to blame for the rejections by government testers, Patricio said only that "we had the manufacturers involved in the process to the extent that the parties communicated with each other and attempted to work through the process" of addressing the failures.
Despite the official government waiver forms she signed asking for the ballistic specifications to be reduced to meet the declining test results, Point Blank's Hatfield said she never considered the problem to be one that stemmed from a manufacturing or material flaw.
Patricio noted in a memo dated Feb. 2, 2004, that the urgent need for body armor in the war zone and the time it would take to find out for sure why the vests were failing outweighed his concerns with the vests.
He therefore would issue a "temporary waiver providing Marines with OTVs of questionable performance," promising that "if, at a later date, the performance is shown to conclusively not meet the government's performance specification, then the issue will be addressed at that time."
The waiver turned out to be anything but temporary. Over the next year, Patricio went on to issue waivers for at least 20 lots representing nearly 19,000 vests.
"The OTVs in the stated lots do not fully comply with the current Marine Corps performance specification for the OTV and do not meet existing contractual requirements," Patricio wrote in one waiver, accepting a shipment of nine lots - about 4,500 vests - that testers at Aberdeen rejected.
"The OTVs are needed by deploying units that must receive them prior to deployment in the very near future. I understand and accept the increased risk posed by accepting the reduced protection against the 9mm threat," he wrote Nov. 24, 2004.
Patricio said he crafted his waivers using language that was legally required to release the vests and "put them on the backs of Marines."
While shrapnel from homemade bombs and 7.62mm bullets from AK47 rifles are among the most common threats in Iraq, 9mm submachine guns are also in common use and a "valid operational threat," said Masters, the Army engineer.
Material tracking problems
Natick officials said they pleaded with Point Blank to properly document and track the materials and manufacture of the vests so they might pinpoint the problem. But they said Point Blank could not deliver the information they needed.
The Marine Corps contract included a premium of about $50 extra per vest to cover additional quality assurance procedures at Point Blank, MacKiewicz said.
Among other information that was of interest to Natick testers was which rolls of woven Kevlar fiber were used, for example, in the assembly of the layered ballistic vest panels.
"That process was basically broken," MacKiewicz said. "I could not distinguish between one roll of material that went into the first 500 or the second 500 or the third 500."
In a series of memos written over the summer of 2004, in which MacKiewicz explained his reasoning for rejecting certain lots delivered by Point Blank, the testing expert detailed his concerns.
In recommending the rejection of lot 71-12 on July 19, MacKiewicz warned of "major quality assurance deficiencies" at the company. He recommended "disciplinary action against the contractor to resolve the issue."
In a July 21 memorandum to Patricio recommending the rejection of two more lots, 69-84 and 71-9, MacKiewicz wrote: "One of the significant factors, which ultimately led to award a contract to Point Blank, was their proposed quality assurance procedures for eliminating defects and tracking materials. ... Point Blank is not compliant with their manufacturing quality control proposal and their contractual obligation for providing consistent product performance and reliability."
Hatfield said she was forthcoming with whatever data contract officials requested, but firmly rejected government officials' claims that her vests had any kind of material problem, putting the blame squarely on the tests at Aberdeen.
"We had no evidence that would compel us that we should change anything that we had done for years," Hatfield said. "I have other sources, and we have compelling evidence that shows no degradation of performance."
No purchases after '04
The Marine Corps fielded vests from the failed lots through the end of 2004, documents and interviews show, but stopped taking delivery of Point Blank manufactured vests in early 2005. By then, the contract had not been exhausted - at least 9,000 vests could still have been purchased.
Neither the Marine Corps nor the company would explain why more vests hadn't been purchased. But in late December 2004, the Army signed a $190 million contract with Point Blank to purchase 360,000 vests through 2006. Point Blank was chosen over 11 other bidders for the contract, the Pentagon said.
The Army, which equips its troops with different versions of the Interceptor body armor system, has never accepted vests that failed ballistic standards, and the service says it stands by the manufacturer despite the Corps' vest failures. Army officials in charge of equipping soldiers with body armor said in an interview that the service has never issued a waiver for ballistic performance and not one of the more than 680,000 vests fielded since 1998 is from a failed production lot.
The Army versions of the Point Blank vest, dubbed Pathfinder and Pathfinder Plus, differ from the Marine Corps' "Alpha" package in the weight and number of Kevlar sheets that make up the armor. To date, the Army has accepted nearly 500,000 vests from the company.
Nonetheless, Point Blank's stock has dropped precipitously this year. In early January, the stock was riding at $17.86 before dropping about 61 percent over the first four months of the year.
On May 3, the day before the Corps announced its body armor recall, Point Blank parent company DHB Industries announced it had named a new president.
The company tapped retired Army Gen. Larry Ellis, who joined the company as a board member last year after retiring from the service. He led Army Forces Command in Atlanta, Ga., before retiring in July.
His appointment follows the hiring of another former Army officer, retired Col. Ishmon Burks, to be DHB's executive vice president for investor and media relations.
The appointments could help to address DHB's flagging stock value and reputation.
CHECK YOUR VEST
Other documents of interest:
This DCMA memo recommends against granting a waiver due to the failure of the outer tactical vests to meet minimum requirements.
A July 21, 2004, memorandum to the Marine Corps Interceptor Vest contract officer rejecting two lots of outer tactical vests.
A July 30, 2004, memorandum to the Marine Corps Interceptor Vest contract officer rejecting one lot of outer tactical vests.
This test matrix from the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Test Center shows rejection data for vest production lot No. 69-96.
This test matrix from the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Test Center shows rejection data for vest production lot No. 79-21.
This photograph shows the complete penetration of an Interceptor outer tactical vest during ballistic testing.
- Matthew Cox covers the Army and contributed to this report.
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign