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Originally published February 13, 2011 at 5:01 PM | Page modified February 15, 2011 at 10:26 AM

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Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton and KUOW 94.9 reporter Patricia Murphy will be available at noon on Tuesday, Feb. 15, to take your questions about their reporting for this project. Submit a question before the chat.

Weight of War: Military struggles to lighten soldiers' load

The U.S. Army is trying to lighten soldiers' load, including trimming every ounce they can from equipment, and is researching the use of robotic "mules" that could carry supplies.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Second of two parts

In the summer of 2008, a team of Army advisers working in the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan found the load shouldered by soldiers had reached a kind of tipping point.

These soldiers trudged through the mountains with body armor, weapons and a variety of other equipment. The weight often topped 100 pounds, wearing down soldiers and restricting their movements when they came under fire from insurgents.

All that gear, much of it designed to help the men survive, was sometimes putting overloaded soldiers at risk on the battlefield.

The advisers, part of the Asymmetric Warfare Group, have helped roust the Army to a more aggressive effort to trim the soldier's load.

Their pilot plan for more than 550 soldiers shed some 24 pounds from a soldier's load by finding alternatives for standard issue Army gear. They acquired lighter flashlights, headlamps, sleeping bags, knee pads, boots, and other gear from commercial vendors. They found a lighter machine gun and trimmer body armor.

The Army also has other efforts under way to lighten the load, ranging from producing lighter weapon tripods to long-term efforts for developing equipment-toting robots.

"The fundamental question is very simple," said 1st Sgt. David Roels, who in 2008 served as one of the Afghanistan advisers. "Am I safer if I am lighter and more mobile? And in most cases, the answer is yes."

Long before the team's trip to the Korengal Valley, the Army Science Board warned of a big weight problem for infantry troops. A 2001 board study concluded that Army soldiers and Marines faced a "severe restriction" in mobility due to the weight of their gear. They recommended the military try to eventually reduce the total load to 50 pounds. That report helped spur development of some lighter equipment.

"We're always trying to provide more capacity to the soldier at lighter weight," said Col. Bill Cole, a project manager for Program Executive Office Soldier, which outfits the Army.

But even as the military shaved pounds off some gear, the overall load remained far in excess of Army and Marine guidelines.

As roadside bombs and other attacks killed and wounded thousands of U.S. troops, the Pentagon's improved body-armor protection still weighed more than 30 pounds and new fighting gear under development could add to the total.

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The Land Warrior, a high-tech system that soaked up more than $500 million in research funds, is a case study of the struggle to control weight.

The Army spent more than a decade developing a system that allows soldiers to track their own forces and the enemy by flipping down an eyepiece mounted on the helmet.

The model, first tested in Iraq by soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, weighed 18.6 pounds — and more than 20 pounds with extra batteries. "It was this huge hulk on your back that really inhibited your ability to function," said Kevin Baker, a veteran who served in that Lewis-McChord battalion that tested the Land Warrior. In one instance, Baker recalls climbing a wall on patrol when a Land Warrior cable caught around a tree branch, suspending him in the air for several minutes.

At one point, the Army sought to cancel the Land Warrior. But Congress revived it.

In 2009, the Army launched a second combat test in southern Afghanistan with a slimmed-down model that weighed more than 10 pounds with extra batteries. Even this model proved a substantial drag as soldiers slogged through farm fields and climbed over mud walls in southern Afghanistan.

"My opinion is that it has got to get lighter or die on the vine," said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Prosser in a 2009 interview while he was serving with the 5th (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division that tested the Land Warrior.

Another version, slimmer still, is under development.

In Afghanistan, even soldiers without the Land Warrior often carried loads that topped 90 pounds.

"When you get shot at, you move as fast as you can," said Justin Kalentis, an Army veteran who was wounded in eastern Afghanistan in 2007. "But it wasn't very fast. You are just tired. So tired."

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The Asymmetric Warfare Group was formed in the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to find new ways to fight insurgents. The staff, which included many Special Forces veterans, was adept at cutting through Pentagon bureaucracy to push for innovation.

The team worked with an Army force that specialized in rapid procurement to buy lighter gear directly from commercial vendors. They found money to outfit more than 550 soldiers in eastern Afghanistan with gear that could trim each soldier's load by up to 24 pounds, according to Roels. For example, an Army Times story noted that they bought lighter sleeping bags from Mountain Hardware that were nearly 1 ½ pounds lighter than the standard Army bag.

By the spring of 2009, the lightweight gear was ready to ship and the team already was in Afghanistan in anticipation of its arrival. But the shipments were abruptly put on hold by Army leaders who wanted further testing of the lighter body armor.

"People don't care about changing socks or knee pads, but you start talking about lighter armor and — oh boy, well, I tell you — you're in a whole new realm," Roels said.

The slimmed-down armor was similar to armor already used by Marines and identical to that used by some Army Special Forces. It featured front, back and side plates to protect the vital organs but shed some of the softer protective material around the deltoid muscles and other parts of the body.

The Army agreed to let the armor go to Afghanistan after slightly heavier plates were substituted for those used by the Special Forces, according to Roels.

The new armor weighed about 22 pounds but could be stripped down to as light as 17 pounds and was less constricting. It was an instant hit with infantry soldiers.

"They hit it out of the ballpark on this one," said 1st Sgt. Gary O'Neil, a soldier with the 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division who received the gear in Afghanistan. "I have been in the Army 14 years and never seen anything comparable to what they pulled off."

"We had some guys come out on patrol with the heavier standard vest, and you could see a huge difference in how they moved when we came under fire. Personally, I felt safer in what I had on."

Since 2009, the Army has distributed more than 48,000 of the lighter-weight armor to front-line soldiers in Afghanistan.

Rather than trying a one-size fits all approach, officers in the field were encouraged to decide when the lighter-weight vests were appropriate, such as on long foot patrols, or when to use the heavier vests, such as on guard duty at a base or when traveling in a vehicle.

"It was kind of a paradigm shift, 360 degrees from everything we had been doing to up-armor Humvees and soldiers," Roels said.

Robots and mules

The Army is considering other steps to ease soldiers' loads.

Water is a big part of the weight that soldiers carry to endure brutally hot summer temperatures in Afghanistan. A 2003 Army study found soldiers carry up to seven quarts of water, weighing nearly 14 pounds, for a two-day mission.

Still, some soldiers occasionally run out of water. Members of a Joint Base Lewis-McChord platoon in 2009 turned to sucking the juice of pomegranates as they fought insurgents in the orchards of southern Afghanistan.

Some Army units are stepping up airdrops of water and other supplies to soldiers on multiday missions.

Others have turned to an ancient resupply tactic — donkeys that can thread their way up the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. But they have their drawbacks: "A donkey will run in the middle of a firefight, and our men will testify to that," said Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, whose soldiers used the animals in 2009.

Iodine pills or portable purification pumps are another option. But none of the commercial pumps can meet the military's strict purity standards, and the Army has yet to come up with its own approved model.

The Pentagon also is pursuing high-tech aids.

Plastics are replacing brass casings in a new generation of machine-gun ammunition under development. Scientists are also hopeful that nanotechnology to create new materials might one day help produce lightweight body armor that would fit a soldier almost like an outer skin.

Aerial drones, already used extensively for surveillance, might one day airlift water, food or ammunition to soldiers.

Robots also are under study. An "exoskeleton," developed by Lockheed Martin, uses titanium legs strapped to a soldier to transfer the weight of their pack to the ground.

Lockheed is also working on robotic mules that can travel alongside foot soldiers, carrying supplies and weapons. The Army is considering testing a six-wheeled beast of burden in Afghanistan.

The Defense Department also has been funding development of a nimble, four-legged robot — dubbed "Big Dog" in its initial incarnation. Powered by an internal combustion engine, Big Dog makes quite a racket as it scoots along the ground. Its successor is expected to be quieter, according to Marc Raibert of Boston Dynamics, which last year won a $32 million contract to the build the robot.

Eventually, Raibert said such robots will be able to climb over a 4-foot wall, wade streams and handle other obstacles that soldiers routinely face on patrol.

Still, skeptics question the costs and practicality of robots. They say soldiers and their commanders need to realize the risks of too much weight, and strive to travel light.

"If I have to have a robot to carry my gear, maybe there is another problem," Roels said. "Too much gear."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times researcher David Turim and Gene Balk contributed

to this report.

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