The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are fueling a boom in the sale of body armor in the United States. Soldiers, as well as contract workers and journalists heading to combat zones in the Middle East and elsewhere, are seeking out the latest hi-tech apparel to protect themselves.
Pulling open the pockets on a bulky vest, Nick Taylor shows how to insert hardened ceramic plates that can stop rifle bullets. He says this type of vest is the garment of choice these days for anyone entering a combat zone.
"The old flak jacket was great for its time, but it only stops fragmentation, hence the name 'flak' jacket, whereas the new outer tactical vest is a better grade of kevlar," he said. "It will actually stop a 9mm sub-machinegun round all by itself. When you put the ceramic rifle plates in then you can actually stop a rifle bullet."
Kevlar is a synthetic fiber woven into a cloth that acts as a springboard to absorb the energy from a bullet. The ceramic plates are as hard as steel, but much lighter. The best grade plates can even stop metal-jacketed bullets from a high-powered rifle.
Nick Taylor, owner and manager of Austin-based Bulletproofme.com, says some customers are put off by the weight of the fully-equipped vests, especially if they have to wear them in hot weather. But he says one female soldier who decided to leave behind the protective plates later told him about a close call she had in Iraq.
"She was actually saved from a rifle bullet even with just a soft body armor vest," said Nick Taylor. "It went through the back of a vehicle and that was just enough to slow it down for the soft vest to stop it. So, the moral of the story is, even if you do not have the best armor, whatever armor you have, wear it."
One of Mr. Taylor's customers who has seen a lot of action while wearing a protective vest is freelance journalist Dennis Cole, who used the heaviest and most protective vest available while covering stories in the Middle East.
"I would be aware of it when I first put it on, but once action started happening, I forgot completely about the weight," he said.
The only problem with the body armor, says Mr. Cole, is that it cannot protect everything.
"The vest has given me, probably I should say, a false sense of security," said Dennis Cole. "I think it will protect the chest area well, especially where the ceramic plates are because they are supposed to withstand 30/06 rounds, armor-piercing rounds, but the thing is there is a whole lot left exposed."
Most wounds suffered by U.S. forces in combat these days involve injuries to limbs and other areas of the body not covered by the armor. Casualty figures from Afghanistan and Iraq show a much higher ratio of wounded to killed-in-action that officials say is directly linked to the use of body armor.
A typical vest equipped with the heaviest-duty plates weighs around eight or nine kilograms. Most soldiers wear their body armor all the time they are in combat zones, but there is a trade-off between mobility and protection in such situations and sometimes the heavy garments do slow soldiers down. Still, most soldiers, often at the urging of their families back home, opt for maximum protection, according to Nick Taylor.
"It is funny how often we talk to the wife who is telling her husband that he is going to be wearing it, no matter how hot it gets," he said.
When Nick Taylor started his venture in 1999, he mostly sold body armor to police officers, but he says BulletProofMe.com has doubled its business each year for the past two years largely because of the conflicts overseas. He says some military personnel are worried that the army will not provide them with the best body armor, so they buy their own.
Originally, the U.S. military supplied the full-protection vests only to soldiers who were expected to be in combat, but with all military personnel now being potential targets in Iraq, the Pentagon is trying to supply the newer body armor to all troops posted there. They will need 80,000 vests and 160,000 plates to outfit every soldier in Iraq by the end of the year.
"The situation in Iraq over the last year has really overshadowed the rest of our business," said Nick Taylor. "In a typical week we see a lot of National Guard and reservists who are not sure if they are going to get the old flak jacket or the new body armor and a lot of defense contractors, that has been a big part of our business. There are a lot of journalists as well. Some of them have better equipment than the soldiers."
Mr. Taylor says a fully-equipped protective vest costs about $800. The level IV ceramic plates that can stop high-velocity rifle rounds cost an additional $500. While he says the conflicts overseas have directly benefited his business, he says there is more to this than making money. He says there is satisfaction in selling a product that can save lives.
"One of the best things about the business is you get a lot of gratitude from people when you can fill their need on short notice," he said. "It is a life-saving product and when people need it, they often need it right away. We have been able to fill that need for people and it is even more gratifying when someone calls you back and tells you how it saved their life."
Bulletproofme.com is one of several companies now selling body armor and other military-type products over the Internet. It is legal for private citizens in the United States to buy these products, although some states prohibit convicted felons from buying body armor.